Akron Children’s Hospital and the Cleveland Clinic are expanding a collaboration started in 2014 to now offer one program to care for pediatric and adult congenital heart patients.

The new center, which will be located both at Children’s main campus in Akron and the clinic’s main campus in Cleveland, will be called the Pediatric and Adult Congenital Heart Center.

The new five-year agreement adds to the previous partnership, which brought together pediatric cardiovascular surgeons and adult congenital cardiologists to collaborate on patient cases, share data and best practices.

As part of the expanded program, patients in Northeast Ohio and beyond can choose to have their cardiac surgeries and procedures at the clinic or Akron Children’s hospitals with physicians from both hospitals providing care. Heart transplants will continue to exclusively take place at the clinic’s main campus.

Additionally, the collaboration gives patients access to outpatient cardiac care at 23 facilities as far south as Mansfield, as far north as Ashtabula, as far west as Norwalk and as far east as Youngstown through affiliated Children’s and clinic locations.

The collaboration puts two programs that were friendly competitors together to create a bigger, better team, said Dr. John Lane, clinical director of the heart center at Children’s.

“Now the children and patients benefit from the input of both teams,” Lane said.

It also combines the expertise of the nationally ranked Children’s physicians with the clinic, which has been ranked No. 1 in adult cardiac care, officials said.

There has been clear evidence across the world that “the bigger center, the better the outcome,” said Dr. Hani Najm, the clinic’s chair of pediatric and congenital heart surgery. “With that, you actually provide the best for kids,” he said.

The combined teams will have 35 pediatric cardiologists and surgeons who specialize in treating children and adults with congenital heart disease and an even bigger team of other hospital personnel working together at both facilities, Najm said.

The entire team meets weekly to discuss cases and doctors will have a joint on-call system at both hospitals. That expands the availability of specialists available on call, Lane said.

Najm said there are other similar collaborations nationwide.

For now, the procedures and surgeries will take place at Children’s main campus and the clinic’s main campus, where the cardiology teams are based. Some limited adult cases are sometimes are at thr Cleveland Clinic’s Akron General campus.

Patients such as Colton Amstutz, 4, already have benefited from the collaboration between the two hospitals.

Last May, Colton, then an otherwise healthy 3-year-old, began screaming of extreme belly pain.

His mother, Linda Amstutz, rushed Colton from their rural home outside Dalton in Wayne County to Aultman Hospital in Canton. There, Aultman physicians and an Akron Children’s pediatric attending physician cared for Colton. Children’s Hospital operates the pediatric inpatient unit at Aultman and later this summer also will run the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and Maternal Fetal Medicine program.

Colton was transported to Children’s main campus in Akron, where he was placed in the pediatric intensive care unit. An echocardiogram revealed his heart was enlarged and not pumping well. He was placed on a heart/lung bypass machine and physicians at both Children’s and the clinic began consulting on his case.

Colton then continued his travels north to the clinic’s main campus, where it was determined he needed a heart transplant. Colton’s heart had failed because of a rare genetic disorder.

He received a heart transplant within 12 weeks and now “has absolutely no complications and is a normal 4-year-old kid, who plays with his little sister and mom and dad," said his mom, Linda. "If you did not know him, you would not be able to tell [he had a transplant]."

Colton is getting regular follow-up therapy at Children's outpatient location in Stark County.

“We couldn’t have asked to live in a better location,” she said. “We really got lucky that we had Akron Children’s and the Cleveland Clinic as close to us.”

The collaboration brings the expertise of both programs together from two independent hospital systems by “getting the brain trust of the full group of both institutions looking over children’s care” and is not a sign of any merger, Children’s Chief Operating Officer Lisa Aurilio said.

Patients and insurance will be billed by whichever facility ultimately does the procedure, even if Children’s and clinic physicians both are involved, Aurilio said.

“Akron Children’s remains an independent free-standing children’s hospital. Just as we’ve partnered with many providers in the community, this is another way of us expanding the expertise of heart care,” she said.

There is no money being exchanged as a result of the collaboration, Aurilio said of the contract, which began last year. The hospitals wanted to get the programs’ coordination underway before officially announcing it, she said.

The center will be jointly led by physician leaders at both locations, including Najm; Dr. Tess Saarel, chair of Pediatric Cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s; Lane of Children’s; and Dr. Robert Stewart, chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Children’s. Clinical administrative leads are Dr. Lars Svensson, chairman of the Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart and Vascular Institute at the Clinic, and Dr. John Crow, chairman of the Department of Surgery at Children’s.

“We want to serve Northeast Ohio and, for that matter, even outside Ohio to give kids the best outcome we can,” Najm said.

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/topics/linfisher