North East MP accuses government of playing politics over heart unit

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is under fire after delaying the decision on the future of children's heart surgery

The Children's Heart Unit at the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle
The Children's Heart Unit at the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle

A North East MP says the Health Secretary is putting “politics before rational evidence-based decision making” as a ruling on the future of children’s heart surgery services will not be made until next year.

As reported in The Journal, NHS England says a decision on the streamlining of paediatric cardiac surgery is expected to be announced in June 2014 at the earliest.

Last year, a ruling was made to keep children’s heart surgery services at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital, but that is now in jeopardy.

The news has angered MPs who feel that politics is being put before the clinical needs of young patients.

Nick Brown, Labour MP for Newcastle East, said: “The need for change has been identified for more than 12 years. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s political decision making has put us back where we started.

“The danger is that he will put politics before rational evidence-based decision making.”

Mr Hunt announced that the initial decision by the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts (JCPCT) to end children’s heart surgery in three units around the country was to be put on hold after an independent review suggested the consultation process was based on “flawed analysis”.

The original decision to close units in Leeds General Infirmary, Glenfield Hospital in Leicester and the Royal Brompton in London was part of a long and detailed review of children’s heart services across England, based on the aim of concentrating expertise in more specialist centres.

NHS England is now taking forward the process and its new Congenital Heart Review will consider both children and adult heart services.

An NHS England report said: “We recognise that continued uncertainty is a risk to the service and unsettling for patients.

“We must therefore set ourselves the target of delivering the new review at pace.

“But we know that speed cannot be an excuse for imposing a top-down solution or for running a process where people feel excluded from the real discussions, so we will be setting ourselves the additional challenge of achieving new levels of transparency and the highest levels of genuine participation.”

A shake-up of paediatric heart surgery units in England was triggered by the Bristol heart scandal between 1990 and 1995, when 35 babies died and dozens were brain damaged.

Two separate legal challenges were launched against the Safe and Sustainable Review – conducted by the JCPCT – including a Leeds campaign group which fought a successful battle in the High Court.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “The Health Secretary has committed to ensuring that children’s heart surgery across the whole country is the best it can possibly be. As he requested, NHS England has updated the department on next steps for the review process, and this will be made public in due course.”

The danger is he will put politics before evidence-based decision making

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