CHILDREN’S heart surgery will continue in the North East after a landmark decision was made to keep the life-saving service in the region.
A NHS review into the streamlining of paediatric heart surgery services in England has decided that children’s heart operations should remain at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital.
The NHS has looked at how it delivers services and decided the best option is to cut the 10 specialist sites that perform children’s heart surgery to seven.
Hospitals in Leicester, Leeds and the Royal Brompton in London are to stop performing children’s heart surgery following the ruling.
Last night, cardiologists welcomed the decision by the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts and said it was great news for the region.
Dr Richard Kirk, consultant paediatric cardiologist at the Freeman, said: “All the staff are delighted. It has been a long, long time to get to this decision and we are thrilled that the evidence put forward for Newcastle has highlighted our high quality of work.
“We are very much looking forward to working with colleagues in Leeds to give children the best possible service and outcomes.
“We always hoped that the decision would be in our favour and it has been a very gruelling process as everything we do has been scrutinised.
“We feel for those in Leeds, who will lose their children’s heart surgery, but we know that we can extend our welcome and quality of care.”
The Safe and Sustainable Review followed the landmark inquiry into children’s heart surgery at Bristol Royal Infirmary between 1990 and 1995, when up to 35 children and babies died as a result of poor care.
In the wake of the probe, it was recommended that paediatric cardiac units be set a target for the number of operations per year, and surgery be concentrated in a few specialist centres in order to ensure quality of care.
The Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts, the decision-making body, considered 12 different options for the future of children’s heart services.
At present the Freeman Hospital’s children’s heart unit carries out 350 operations a year and this is expected to increase to more than 400 when the changes are implemented.
For mum Devon Higgins, of West Monkseaton, North Tyneside, the news has come as a huge relief.
Her son Patrick Skinner made medical history when he became one of two children to have heart transplants in the same hospital on the same day.
The Star of the Sea RC Primary School pupil was an inspiration to many when he and 10-month-old Ellen Walsh, who lived just streets apart, were both given new hearts within hours of each other at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital in 2009.
Sadly Ellen died when she was three years old. Patrick, five, underwent further open heart surgery 10 weeks ago at the Freeman Hospital and is doing well.
Devon, 28, a part-time dental receptionist, said: “It is fantastic news that the Freeman Hospital is continuing to do children’s heart surgery.
“When the announcement was made there was a lot of tears and cheers ... it was quite overwhelming.
“During the review no stone was left unturned, and it’s great that the outstanding work of staff at the Freeman was recognised.”
The Royal Brompton in Chelsea, west London, Leeds General Infirmary and Glenfield Hospital in Leicester will not stop providing surgery immediately as plans to implement the new streamlined service are still being developed.
It is understood that the hospitals will continue to provide the specialist procedures throughout 2013.
Once they stop providing surgery the units will still see patients for diagnosis, monitoring and non-surgical treatment.
Former North East minister Nick Brown welcomed the announcement.
The Newcastle East Labour MP said: “This is the right decision. I hope that we can all now move on and make the consolidated plan work for very young patients. Sir Len Fenwick and his staff worked very hard on this and they richly deserve their victory.”