A PIONEERING unit for heart attack and stroke patients opening at the Royal Free next month will be the first of its kind in the country, the hospital announced today.

The heart attack stroke (HAS) centre at the hospital in Hampstead will provide access to specialist cardiologists and neurologists 24 hours a day.

Designed to increase patients' chances of survival and a better quality of life, the centre will accept heart attack and stroke patients from November.

A new dedicated ambulance entrance leading to the centre will allow patients identified by ambulance crews as suffering from heart attack and stroke to be taken there directly rather than via accident and emergency.

The new system should mean treatments will be delivered more quickly, increasing their effectiveness. For example, heart attack patients may be given a coronary angioplasty, where a cardiologist opens up a blocked artery in the heart by inflating a small balloon and implanting a metal tube.

Patients arriving at the hospital within a few hours of the onset of stroke will be able to get a thrombolytic agent or clot buster' which can effectively reverse the stroke and prevent death or long-term disability.

Dr Roby Rakhit, head of cardiology services, said: "Both treatments need to be given as quickly as possible to prevent damage to both heart and brain. We already have impressive turnaround times for treating patients with stroke or heart attacks - with this new service we will be able to improve on them further as well as meet best practice standards.

"The centre will not only increase patients' chances of survival but also their chances of having a better quality of life after they leave hospital. This service is therefore a hugely significant development for these patients and once again it puts the Royal Free at the forefront of clinical development as the centre is the first of its kind in the country."