Hospital to review babies' heart cases surgery

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The Independent Online
A HOSPITAL that specialises in heart surgery for babies told parents yesterday it would review any paediatric case from the Eighties amid doubts over its performance during that decade.

The Freeman in Newcastle upon Tyne emerged as a hospital with a questionable paediatric-cardiac unit record in evidence from Sir Terence English, a former Department of Health heart surgery advisory committee member, to the Bristol Royal Infirmary public inquiry.

"Bristol, Newcastle, Harefield and Guy's [in London] were the ones there were question marks over. Not only of their size, which was well known, but of their effectiveness as surgical units," Sir Terence told the inquiry in May. "Newcastle subsequently improved but Bristol took much longer."

Len Fenwick, the Freeman Hospital's chief executive, said yesterday: "We would be delighted to review the case history of any child where a parent wishes to receive assurance or clarification."

The Freeman's paediatric open heart surgery mortality rate in 1982 was 20.3 per cent, compared with the national average of 10.6 per cent. The hospital said it was unable to give the figures for 1983 and 1984. However, in 1997-98, it said, the mortality rate was 3.9 per cent - while the national average was 4.6 per cent.

Mr Fenwick said Newcastle's baby mortality rate in the Eighties was much higher than today's because it was before the immense progress in heart surgery techniques.

"Technology and the skills base have moved forward and the case load numbers have increased substantially," he said.

The questions raised about the Freeman in the Eighties related to the "breadth and scope of facilities and infrastructure" and "the risk of small units with consultants working [by themselves] rather than with a team", Mr Fenwick said. Investment in the early Nineties ensured surgeons worked together, sharing caseloads.

A paediatric cardiologist, Stuart Hunter, who has worked at the hospital since 1977, said: "Our mortality rate was above average [in the Eighties] but congenital heart surgery is one of the most rapidly developing medical fields and a great deal has changed since then."

The Freeman paediatric-cardiac unit has in recent years been praised. Unpublished figures for this year record two deaths from 90 paediatric open-heart operations.