Year's wait to hear fate of heart care at the Freeman Hospital

NHS England says a definitive ruling on the streamlining of paediatric cardiac surgery is expected to be announced in June 2014 at the earliest

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

A decision on the future of children’s heart surgery in the North East will not be made until next year.

NHS England says a definitive ruling on the streamlining of paediatric cardiac surgery is expected to be announced in June 2014 at the earliest.

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

Hospital managers are disappointed about the delay, but insist a £12m planned investment in services will continue, albeit with a “measured” approach.

Sir Leonard Fenwick, chief executive of Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “It is expected that the fresh assessment will take at least a year.

“This puts into question our investment plans, but we are certainly going to continue with a measured approach.

“The bottom line is that Newcastle is in a strong position to compete as we have the best quality, outcomes and breadth of services.

“I am not surprised at how long the decision is taking, but in many respects I’m disappointed as members of staff, patients and families remain anxious.”

Health Secretary Jeremy 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, as the organisation said, “since the same surgeons operate on the same patients at different times in their lives, there are considerable dependencies between adults’ and children’s services, especially in the availability of surgical teams to provide 24/7 cover”.

An NHS England report stated: “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.

Yesterday a meeting with local charities and patient groups was held in central London as part of NHS England’s engagement process.

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