Hyperbaric chambers a breath of fresh air for animal hospitals

In October 2011, Dr. Andrew Turkell’s AAHA-accredited Calusa Veterinary Center became one of fewer than perhaps two dozen American veterinary hospitals to install a hyperbaric chamber.

By the time his shiny new hyperbaric chamber was one year old, Turkell and his staff had performed more than 600 treatments.

In addition to boosting his hospital’s revenue, Turkell said adding the chamber has differentiated his practice from others in his area.

“It also elevates the status of my staff. It’s really quite interesting when you put a chamber in and you’re the only person around that has this piece of equipment,” he said.

While the monetary and marketing benefits have been nice, Turkell said the chamber is paying dividends for the primary reason he got it - improving the health of his patients.

Putting hyperbarics to the test

Turkell initially researched hyperbaric chambers after he started performing adipose-derived stem cell injections because he read that hyperbaric oxygen enhances the viability of stem cells, he said.

“In my process of understanding hyperbarics, what I’ve learned is that it saturates the body with oxygen - up to six times normal - which basically allows cells to be jump-started into somewhat of a hyper-functioning state,” Turkell said.

So far, Turkell said his hospital’s chamber usage has extended far beyond stem cell injections to include treatment of maladies such as non-healing wounds, snake bites, pancreatitis, acute anemia, and idiopathic thrombocytopenia.

One of Turkell’s favorite success stories to date is that of a 3-pound Yorkie that was referred to his hospital by a neurologist after it awoke blind and paralyzed following an anesthetic accident.

“The client then brought the dog to the chamber, we put the dog in this chamber and within five treatments the dog was able to start to see, start to stand,” Turkell said. “They actually treated this dog 30 times and the dog was completely normal.”

He also shared the story of another dog that had come in with a problem wound that hadn’t healed in almost a year. After 10 sessions in the chamber, Turkell’s staff sent the dog home fully healed, he said.

“A month later he (the dog’s owner) came back and said, ‘I want the dog to go back in the chamber for another 10 treatments, because when it came home its arthritis seemed to be so much better,’” Turkell said.

Veterinary schools taking a closer look at hyperbarics

Private practice veterinarians aren’t the only ones interested in hyperbaric oxygen’s effects on animals. In October 2012, the University of Florida became the second American veterinary teaching hospital - the other being the University of Tennessee - to begin using a hyperbaric chamber.

Dr. Justin Shmalberg, clinical assistant professor of integrative medicine at the university, has been treating animals with hyperbaric oxygen after receiving training from the chamber’s manufacturer, Hyperbaric Veterinary Medicine (HVM).

Shmalberg said the veterinary school has conducted about 90 treatments, taking its time with each case to review the results and decide the best evidence-based applications in individual patients.

“Our longer-term goal is to facilitate clinical trials to better understand the impact of hyperbaric oxygen in specific disease conditions,” he said.

Shmalberg said the school has primarily treated extensive wounds and skin flaps so far, but the most notable perceived improvements have been in severe rattlesnake bites.

“Such cases have been publicized and have generally resulted in marked reductions in tissue swelling, and we are hoping that it is also preventing the tissue necrosis we saw in severe cases before the hyperbaric chamber was available,” he said.

Although Shmalberg acknowledged they have observed some apparently positive results, he said the school won’t draw sweeping conclusions about the chamber’s efficacy until they conduct controlled studies and obtain other information.

Overcoming the biggest barrier to entry

Lack of capital has been a significant barrier for veterinary practices that have shown interest in hyperbaric chambers, said Wayne McCullough, CEO and president of Hyperbaric Veterinary Medicine.

According to McCullough, the market value for a new veterinary hyperbaric chamber is an estimated $100,000.

To make hyperbaric chambers accessible to veterinarians like Turkell, McCullough said his company, which he believes is the only company currently making small animal-specific chambers, had to eliminate the initial cost of the device for veterinarians. Instead of charging practices for chambers, his company places them free of charge and shares in the revenue earned from each treatment.

That same business model has enabled at least 2,500 U.S. human hospitals to host hyperbaric chambers, in McCullough’s estimation. It requires a certain amount of risk on HVM's side, but McCullough and his business partner Edgar Otto both experienced prolonged success operating that way in human medicine.

“We’re duplicating what we did on the human side,” McCullough said. “We’re making the technology available, we’re taking the risk, and the acceptance is huge.”

Turkell said he received a chamber from HVM at no capital expense other than “the oxygen line and just a couple little odds and ends to get the chamber where it needed to be,” and he shares the revenue from each procedure.

“And they’re (HVM) very happy with the fact that I did 600 patients in the first year,” Turkell said.

McCullough said although his company hears from many practices interested in getting chambers, they must be selective because not every animal hospital is a good fit for his revenue-sharing model.

To ensure a healthy return from placing a chamber, he said they look to partner with hospitals that have more than one veterinarian, boast a high patient volume that predicts high chamber usage, and ideally have a boarded specialist on staff.

Hyperbarics poised for rapid growth in the veterinary profession

Human medicine has gained a significant head-start on veterinary medicine in terms of hyperbarics, having experimented with it since the 17th century and adopting widespread hospital use in the 1970s or 1980s.

That usage gap is about to narrow quickly, according to Turkell, who said it’s only a matter of time until hyperbaric medicine becomes part of the standard of care in veterinary practices around the country.

“So often times veterinary medicine might be a pioneer; in this particular case, veterinary medicine is going to catch up to what’s happening on the human side for hyperbaric oxygen,” he said.

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