New surgery tech for most common heart rhythm condition marks new era of shorter waiting lists and safer, faster treatment

St Vincent’s Private Hospital Northside is leading the way in the use of innovative new technology to treat the most common heart rhythm condition - which most importantly is expected to cut waiting times and make surgery safer and faster.


Cardiologists and electrophysiologists A/Prof. Haris Haqqani and Dr Tomos Walters this week performed the first Pulsed Field Ablation procedures in a private hospital in Queensland using new technology to treat atrial fibrillation (AF) - one of the most common cardiac disorders currently affecting around 600,000 Australians.  


A/Prof. Haqqani did the first procedure in Australia and the first outside Europe at Prince Charles Hospital in 2022, with the procedure now available across private and public health systems.


Brisbane man, Tim Woolley, aged 80, was sitting up in a St Vincent’s Private Hospital ward bed just hours after the surgery yesterday, delighted that his procedure had gone very smoothly and elated that he would be going home the next day.

The Pulsed Field Ablation procedure emits high-intensity electrical currents to remove the abnormally firing cells in the left atrium that trigger episodes of atrial fibrillation in patients.


Atrial fibrillation is a disease of the heart rhythm characterised by an irregular and usually fast heartbeat. It’s most common in older Australians with age, genetics and lifestyle the greatest risk factors - but it can also affect younger patients.


While other heart disease may be relatively on the decline due to awareness and health programs, AF is increasing (due to an ageing population as well as lifestyle factors) with around 2% of Australians having the common cardiac condition.


During AF, the heart’s upper chambers (the atria) beat chaotically and out of sync with the lower chambers (the ventricles) of the heart. AF may cause symptoms such as palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness or fatigue.


If left undiagnosed and untreated, it may lead to complications such as heart failure or stroke. 

For several decades, heart rhythm specialists such as St Vincent’s Private Hospital Northside’s A/Prof. Haris Haqqani and Dr Tomos Walters have conducted ablation procedures - a minimally invasive procedure where thermal treatments such as radiofrequency or cryoablation have been used to heat or freeze the abnormally firing tissue in the left atrium that triggers AF episodes.

This causes it to become scar tissue – rendering it electrically inert. However, these procedures can involve the patient being under general anaesthetic for up to two hours.

“It’s been a fairly effective treatment over the years, although rendering all of the tissue inert is quite challenging and you often have to go back and do multiple procedures over a period of time, to get that complete electrical isolation,” says Dr Walters.

“Also, there’s a danger, which is rare, that in making the tissue around the left atrium inert, because of its proximity to other organs and tissue, there’s the potential to damage the oesophagus and nerves that lead to the diaphragm. In the most extreme cases – again which is rare - it can be fatal.”

Tomos Walters

Dr Tomos Walters


A/Prof Haris Haqqani

Pulsed Field Ablation (PFA), uses high intensity electric fields of around 2000 volts to deliberately injure the heart muscle cells in the same area.

A/Prof. Haqqani said that like conventional thermal ablation, PFA still involves inserting a thin, flexible tube called a catheter which is guided from the patient’s groin to the specific site of the heart where the abnormal electrical activity is occurring.

“This new technology is worth its weight in gold and it’s fair to say it’s quite revolutionary. It is clear that it is safer and more efficient for the patient – which is important given that most of the patients who need this procedure are aged in their 60s, 70s and some in their 80s,” says A/Prof. Haqqani.

“What’s important – especially given the age of the majority of patients - is that we now have the ability to not have the patient under anaesthetic for a significant period and we don’t have to spend over an hour in the left atrium. The actual ablation time with PFA is only around 15 minutes or less. With thermal ablation procedures you typically would only do one or two procedures in a session, but due to the greater efficiency and faster workflow of PFA, many more patients should be able to be treated in that time.

“This will have an enormous positive impact on reducing surgical waiting times, particularly of course in the public system (which has waiting times of around two to three years in some hospitals), but also in the private hospital system.”

Bernadette Tooey

Mr Woolley, 80, of Hendra in Brisbane, was only recently made aware of the new technology by Dr Walters and the fact that it was a lower risk option.


“If you want to live to a ripe old age you look after your heart. I was told this was new technology, and I’m the type of person who’s happy to try anything new so long as the risk is no greater,” said Mr Woolley.


“I knew I was in good hands and never had a moment’s qualm about the procedure when I arrived at St Vincent’s for the procedure. Before I went in for surgery my heart beat was very irregular but since I’ve woken up after surgery, it’s back to normal. I feel terrific – I have no pain now, so the result as far as I’m concerned is 100%. I’m looking forward to getting back to playing golf next week!”  


Dr Walters said because the procedure was safer, it would also lower the threshold of patients who were regarded as suited to the surgery and widen the pool of patients who could access the treatment.


“We’ve been on the lookout for a way of doing a similar procedure in the same area but doing it more effectively and more safely,” he says. “While it’s not a paradigm shift in what we’re trying to achieve it’s fair to say it’s a paradigm shift in how that’s being achieved.


“All the preliminary data shows one thing very clearly – that it’s safe and that there’s very low rates of complications.


“In terms of outcomes – if it’s a more effective procedure and you eliminate the AF condition, that should translate to better quality of life, better activity levels and better heart function for the majority of patients.”

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