Top Doctors 2021: From Engineer To Heart Surgeon

Dr. Robert Binford’s unique background influences his approach

By Edited and Condensed by Rob Smith May 17, 2021


This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Seattle magazine.

Name: Robert Binford, M.D.

Practice and Hospital Affiliation: Cardiothoracic surgery, Overlake Clinics; Overlake Medical Center

Why did you pick your specialty? I am originally an aerospace engineer with aspirations of becoming a test pilot or even an astronaut, but I decided to change course and pursue a career in medicine. During medical school, I gravitated toward the surgical specialties. I suppose my engineering background influenced my interests since surgery is the practical and mechanical application of basic science to medicine. The heart is one of the most complex organs in the body, and it is very mechanical in its function. My education as an engineer aligns very well with heart surgery. Successfully operating on the heart requires a very high degree of technical skill and an ability to handle stress — both qualities needed by test pilots and astronauts.

My interests in heart surgery are minimally invasive heart surgery and valve surgery. I helped develop one of the first robotic heart surgery programs in the country and trained many surgeons in robotic heart surgery from all around the world. I developed an interest in complex repairs of the mitral valve, and I have now expanded my interest in valve repair to the aortic valve as well.

What do you wish people knew about your specialty? Many people equate heart surgery with large incisions, long recoveries and high risk. In fact, the majority of heart surgeries carry a relatively low risk of complications. Though the standard approach to heart surgery requires a large incision through the breastbone, there are many surgeries that can be accomplished through much smaller incisions — some as small as a two-inch incision.  

In collaboration with our cardiologists, we are also able to offer valve surgery options that do not require any incisions. We have been performing the TAVR [transcatheter aortic valve replacement] procedure at Overlake for eight years with excellent results. We can also address some mitral valve disease with the MitraClip device.

Another recent change in cardiac surgery is the development of multispecialty teams dedicated to the treatment of heart valve disease. Both cardiac surgeons and cardiologists now meet to discuss the majority of valve patients. This creates an environment of collaboration and increases communication.  This new model of delivering care results in treatment that is more individualized for patients, which results in better outcomes for patients.

How will the pandemic change your practice? Initially, the pandemic stopped all heart surgeries except for urgent and emergency surgeries. However, our volumes have returned to almost normal levels. I think the biggest impact has been on our patients who, due to visiting restrictions and rules in response to Covid-19 safety protocols, are currently without the typical familial support while hospitalized. Heart surgery remains a very stressful moment for our patients, and facing this alone in the hospital is challenging. Our team is dedicated to keeping patients’ family members in the loop. We do not want our patients to feel lonely while they are in the hospital. I believe as we move forward, keeping focused on this communication can only help us better care for our patients, even when families are allowed back into the hospital.

This feature is a part of our 21st annual list of the region’s best physicians. View the list here. 

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