Head of Leeds hospitals apologises over heart unit failures

Directors at NHS England and Leeds Teaching Hospitals
Directors at NHS England and Leeds Teaching Hospitals

The head of Leeds hospitals has apologised to 16 families whose children received “unacceptable” care at Leeds Children’s Heart Surgery Unit.

A long-awaited report commissioned after the controversial suspension of surgery at the unit last year found a “tragic lack of communication, compassion and sometimes basic kindness”, according to an NHS director.

Hospital and NHS bosses pledged action over the concerns, which included mums saying they felt pressurised to have a termination when their unborn babies were diagnosed with heart defects.

Some families whose children died said they were not treated with compassion and felt staff wanted them to leave as quickly as possible.

Dr Mike Bewick, deputy medical director at NHS England, said: “At the moment of the death of their child, parents have felt abandoned. That can’t be right at what is probably the most devastating and vulnerable point of their lives.

“I fully appreciate that there will be plenty of good practice out there but we can’t rest until we get this right for every child and their family.

The NHS England report came after the temporary halting of operations at the Leeds General Infirmary unit a year ago.

A swiftly-conducted review concluded that surgery was safe to resume a few weeks later and a second phase of the review was started.

Julian Hartley, chief executive of Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, told the YEP: ”Our heartfelt apologies to the families who reported these experiences.

“Their stories will give us more to learn and more to improve but we also need to say that we treat 10,000 children every year in the unit and perform more than 800 operations.

Mr Bewick said the review did not include a range of feedback because its scope was to listen to families with concerns.

Sharon Cheng, director of the Children’s Heart Surgery Fund charity which supports the unit, said: “While one complaint is too many, the vast majority of families and patients under Leeds’s care tell us on a daily basis what a superb service they receive from Leeds and that they feel the team has gone above and beyond to care for their children.”

Death rates at Leeds Children’s Heart Surgery Unit are no higher than at other hospitals, the review confirmed.

An investigation into 35 deaths of patients at the Leeds General Infirmary ward between 2009 and 2013 concluded that care and treatment was “in line with standard practice”.

NHS England commissioned the review following the temporary suspension of surgery at the unit a year ago, which was partly due to concerns over high mortality rates.

These were later shown to be inaccurate and the new review again confirmed this.

NHS England deputy medical director Dr Mike Bewick said: “I am happy to say, on the basis of the evidence that we currently have, that services in Leeds are safe and running well.”

Dr Bewick defended the decision to suspend operations at the unit.

He said it was made on the basis of the available death rate data, concerns from families and other doctors, adding: “If the three pieces of evidence came my way today, my advice would be exactly the same.”

The mortality case review included several recommendations for improving services. Dr Bewick said Leeds hospitals had made “significant changes” and he expected an action plan soon.

Julian Hartley, chief executive of Leeds Teaching Hospitals, said the conclusions gave a “clear message” that the unit is safe: “We as a trust are confident that we are able to demonstrate that Leeds is an appropriate place to receive care and treatment.”

Sharon Cheng, director of the Children’s Heart Surgery Fund, added: “The report underlines what we have always known – that Leeds is not considered an outlier in terms of its mortality rates from surgery.”

A third report expected as part of the review has been delayed, NHS bosses admitted.

A year ago the second phase of the review was commissioned after a temporary suspension of surgery at the Leeds Children’s Heart Surgery Unit.

Two parts of the review, looking at deaths among patients and concerns from families, were published today. But the third, an investigation of concerns from other doctors around transfers to different hospitals, was not.

NHS England, which commissioned the reports, said the third investigation was being carried out by an external organisation.

Dr Mike Bewick said the report was expected by late spring. He said it was necessary to take extra time to ensure the investigation was done thoroughly.

A new review is currently underway to decide on the long-term future of all children’s heart surgery units and Dr Bewick said the findings from the Leeds reports would form part of new service standards which all hospitals would have to meet.