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July 30, 2010

Dr Phil’s Private Eye Column Issue 1269, August 4, 2010
Filed under: Private Eye — Tags: — Dr. Phil @ 8:00 am

Oxford Heart Inquiry

Ever since exposing the Bristol heart scandal in 1992, the Eye has argued that complex child heart surgery should concentrated in fewer, more specialized centres. Now, thanks to the rank amateurishness exposed in the Oxford heart inquiry, small units may finally have to merge. The report has many echoes of Bristol, where between 30 and 35 children less than one year died than might have been expected at a typical unit at the time. In Oxford, the numbers were smaller, because surgeon Caner Salih blew the whistle himself after four deaths in fifteen operations between December 2009 and February 2010 (4.8 times the expected death rate). But between 2000 and 2008, 9 deaths occurred in children undergoing less common procedures, 5.29 times the expected death rate. In a nutshell, such a small unit should have ceased doing complex paediatric cardiac surgery after the Bristol report a decade ago, and must never be allowed to again.

Prior to the arrival of Mr Salih in December 2009, the Oxford Radcliffe Infirmary had a single paediatric heart surgeon, Professor Steven Westaby, dividing his time between adult and paediatric work. For over four years, Oxford had the equivalent of half a child heart surgeon, on call twenty four hours a day, every day of the year. When Mr Salih arrived from Melbourne, Professor Westaby took a deserved three week holiday. So a new, relatively inexperienced surgeon started on the unit with inadequate induction, no on-site mentoring and no senior operating help for the more complex cases.

Professor Westaby told the inquiry ‘that he did not expect Mr Salih to operate during his absence. On learning from the panel that Mr Salih had operated during that time, he said that he did not expect that the operations were complex.’ Unfortunately, they were. Mr Salih told the inquiry he did not regard Professor Westaby’s absence as ‘relevant to what operations he carried out’, and it was clear that the two had ‘not satisfactorily discussed the matter.’ By the time Westaby returned, Salih had announce his intention to leave his job. Westaby presence didn’t improve matters, because he had an ‘idiosyncratic’ approach to operating and so they worked in isolation, rather than as a team.

Having been promised two operating lists at interview, Mr Salih wasn’t given any to start with, having to cram operations in whenever a slot arose. He was finally given one on a Friday morning, not enough to improve his skill levels, and intensive care was often full and monitoring of sick babies over the weekend harder. There was no dedicated paediatric perfusionist able to offer the life support back-up he was used to, and neither was the surgical equipment he needed available from the start of his appointment. He did manage to find a mentor, over the phone in London, but this was hardly ideal given the complexity of the operations he was attempting. The review concluded that ‘all the cases were complex and surgery was high risk. We found no errors of judgement that directly lead to any of the deaths…. we found no evidence of poor surgical practice… it was an error of judgement for him (Mr Salih) to undertake the fourth case.’

The review found plenty of evidence of the dismal monitoring of safety by the Trust. In December 2009, Mr Salih expressed concerns about the support he was receiving, but by February 2010 he still hadn’t met the Paediatric Directorate manager. On February 19, he informed colleagues that he was ceasing to operate because of the string of deaths, but no formal action was taken to suspend services on that day. Surgery was not officially ‘paused’ until February 24, but no-one considered this warranted reporting a ‘Significant Untoward Incident’ or telling the SHA. Only when a journalist threatened to leak the story was an SUI declared on March 3. Once the story broke, an extraordinary mortality meeting was held to discuss the four deaths, 21 days after the last had occurred. Prof. Westaby didn’t attend and neither did one of the paediatric anaesthetists. Most damning of all is that parents don’t appear to have been told the true, surgeon or unit specific risks of the operations their babies were undergoing but rather national average risks. It’s as if Bristol never happened. Labour ducked the opportunity to safely sort out child heart surgery. The coalition mustn’t make the same mistake.