29 March 2013
Last updated at 07:14 ET
Congenital heart defects in children are rare
The medical director of the NHS has defended the suspension of child heart surgery at Leeds General Infirmary while a safety review is carried out.
Sir Bruce Keogh said the trust had no choice, after data suggested a death rate twice the national average, and surgeons had raised their concerns.
He conceded the timing, just 24 hours after a High Court ruling kept the unit open, was “embarrassing”.
MP Stuart Andrew, who fought to keep the unit open, said it was “very odd”.
The hospital is at the centre of a long-running dispute over the future of children’s heart services, and an NHS review said surgery would be better focused at fewer, larger sites.
Sir Bruce said as well as the mortality rates, another area of concern among the “constellation of reasons” to suspend operations was the allegation that the hospital was not referring children to other specialist surgical units when appropriate.
“There have been rumblings in the cardiac surgical community for some time that all was not well in Leeds.”
On Tuesday, two surgeons had called him to express concerns and on Wednesday there was another telephone call from an “agitated cardiologist”.
All three doctors had connections with Leeds but were not staff there, he added.
The cardiologist was worried about mortality rates for the last two years, which Sir Bruce said were “about twice the national average or more” and rising.
“As medical director I couldn’t do nothing. I was really disturbed about the timing of this.
“I couldn’t sit back just because the timing was inconvenient, awkward or would look suspicious, as it does.”
He visited the hospital on Thursday to present the evidence and the trust decided to suspend operations.
There has been a battle to keep children’s heart surgery in Leeds
Children who would have been treated in Leeds will be sent to other hospitals around England.
Affected families are being contacted directly by the trust and the review is expected to take three weeks.
Mr Andrew, Conservative MP for Pudsey, who has led a cross-party campaign to keep the unit open, said it was a “very odd” decision coming after the jubilation that greeted the court ruling on Wednesday.
“We have always asked them ‘is it safe at Leeds?’ and the answer always came back ‘yes it is’.
“What is the information that says that has changed?”
He added he had not received one complaint about care, only praise from parents of young patients.
Peter Jacques, from Bradford, said his son, now seven, had a heart operation at Leeds two years ago and the care he received was “outstanding”.
He said: “In our opinion, given the initial campaign to reverse the closure of the unit, the timing of this decision is beyond suspicious.”
The Children’s Heart Federation first raised concerns about death rates at Leeds General Infirmary two years ago.
Chief executive Anne Keatley-Clarke says the charity wrote to the Care Quality Commission again in February about the difficulties parents were experiencing in getting referred elsewhere.
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