UF Aortic Disease Center dysphagia project collaboration spearheads R01 grant

Among the possible complications for most cardiac surgical procedures, dysphagia, or trouble swallowing, is one of the most common. The condition can affect patient nutrition, lead to dehydration, and even cause aspiration pneumonia. And, though the latter is a major cause of mortality, it is preventative — with the right early discovery.

Now, researchers from the UF Aortic Disease Center and the Breathing Research and Therapeutics center are leveraging a $2.5M grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research to study mechanisms, predictors and clinical markers of dysphagia in cardiac surgical patients.

“Early detection and accurate monitoring of dysphagia are essential for providers to be able to facilitate timely

intervention,” said Eric Jeng, M.D., MBA, assistant professor of cardiac surgery. “Receiving an R01 to continue studying this area allows us to improve the safety profile, and focus on improving our means of early detection.”

The grant also seeks to determine which patients are at higher risk for dysphagia and aspiration, and how clinicians should proceed with further study and treatment evaluation. Currently, gaps in knowledge impact the clinical care of cardiac surgical patients. Part of the grant’s research will also help to validate tools for precise detection and monitoring, and further standardize risk factors across different demographics. A strength of its research team is the multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving, Jeng said.

“From the beginning, this has been a team approach to addressing complex problems…we’ve gotten rid of silos and we’re able to come together and bounce ideas off of each other,” he said.

Along with his co-principal investigator, Dr. Emily Plowman, an affiliate professor with the department of surgery, the team is shifting their approach toward a proactive and evidence-based model of care for cardiac surgery patients. Plowman’s work has created a robust body of evidence detailing the negative effects of dysphagia on cardiac surgical patients, including their cost of care, length of hospital stay, and elevated rates of 90-day mortality.

Together, Jeng and Plowman are committed to creating dedicated, systematic improvements across the system.

“Combining forces across health disciplines leads to better patient care and outcomes,” Plowman said. “Our distinct expertise enables our team to address the issue from a holistic perspective, accounting for a variety of factors.”

Now, about a year and a half in, Drs. Jeng and Plowman have enrolled more than 200 patients — and plan to keep enrolling more. Currently, Jeng is one of 14 cardiac surgeons in the country with an active R01, and he credits a significant part of it to the Aortic Disease Center’s initial funding of the pilot grant, whose promising results and data collection led the way for the R01 in question.

“Ultimately, we’re looking at improving cardiovascular surgery at a national and international level, and seeing the quality of the postoperative care we provide reach new heights,” Jeng said.