Politics & Government

After a report on child deaths, UNC hospital will suspend some heart surgeries

Information about the state investigation into the hospital’s pediatric heart surgery program was corrected Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.

North Carolina Children’s Hospital will stop performing complicated heart surgeries while an outside group examines its practices, hospital officials announced Monday.

The decision to temporarily suspend some child heart surgeries at the UNC-run hospital comes after a report by The New York Times about high death rates. The newspaper reported on mortality rates higher than the national average and on complications in children whose surgeries were considered low-risk.

UNC Health Care said in a news release that it is taking several steps, including the examination by outside experts, “to restore confidence in its pediatric heart surgery program.”

“I want to acknowledge in the sincerest way possible, that for our team and for me personally, the death of any child is one too many,” Dr. Wesley Burks, CEO of UNC Health Care, said in a prepared statement. “These steps are part of a comprehensive effort to ensure UNC Health Care’s mission to serve all North Carolinians with the highest quality there is.”

The New York Times obtained secretly recorded audio of cardiologists alarmed by young patient deaths. In one recording, a cardiologist questioned whether he would send his children to be treated at the hospital.

The state Department of Health and Human Services launched an investigation of the hospital’s child heart surgery program after the Times published the results of its investigation, the News & Observer has reported.

The Children’s Hospital will not perform some complex surgeries while it waits for the final DHHS report and the external advisory board’s evaluation and recommendations, UNC Health Care said. The advisory board will report to the UNC Health Care Board of Directors.

State investigators finished their on-site work at the hospital on Friday, June 14, a DHHS spokeswoman said in an email Monday. State regulators have 10 business days once they leave the hospital to write a report, which then goes to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services for review.

In an email to UNC Health Care employees Monday, its leaders wrote, “Over the past couple of weeks our pediatric congenital heart surgery program has been in the news with reports of poor outcomes and a lack of transparency into mortality data. We and the UNC Health Care Board of Directors believe it is important to acknowledge the time period when our survival rate was below the national average and share data previously used for our internal peer review.”

In a May 31 interview, hospital administrators said they stood behind the care children had received. They were eager to consign any problems to the past, blamed poor team dynamics and highlighted leadership changes in the past two years.

The hospital had not made available to the public data on deaths on the Society of Thoracic Surgeons website. The organization maintains a public database of hospitals’ cases of congenital heart surgeries, sorted by complicity and patient death statistics. The information is risk-adjusted, meaning that it takes prematurity and other factors into account, the New York Times reported.

The hospital posted some limited data on its own website a few months ago, but the Times sued for risk-adjusted data. The hospital announced Monday that it would make its information public on the Society of Thoracic Surgeons website and released past, risk-adjusted numbers on the hospital website.

Charles D. Owen III, the UNC Health Care board of directors chairman, said in an interview that the board will look to the outside advisers for guidance.

“We’ll defer to those experts,” Owen said. “We’ll take that report and use it as a tool as we said we would.”

Additionally, UNC Health Care said it would develop a new quality and safety reporting system with “escalation processes” built so senior leadership and the the board of directors know what’s happening.

The hospital will create a family advisory council for pediatric heart surgery patients and family members, and will recruit more doctors and other professionals to the pediatric heart surgery team.

UNC Health Care said that by next year, it will have invested $10 million over three years in technology and other improvements.

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