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  1. Investigations

In North Carolina, the New York Times reveals another heart surgery program in trouble

Problems at Johns Hopkins All Children’s have brought the risks of children’s heart surgery — and the vastly different care some institutions provide — to the forefront in Tampa Bay.
Screenshot of the New York Times investigation
Published May 30
Updated May 31

A New York Times investigation published today details a situation that may feel familiar to readers in St. Petersburg.

A well-respected children’s hospital — this one in North Carolina — was having trouble keeping heart surgery patients alive. Cardiologists were concerned.

“This is crazy what we’re doing,” one said in a staff meeting.

“It’s inexcusable,” said another.

Another still said the situation had become so bad, he would no longer take his own children for surgery there.

On Thursday, the New York Times published secret recordings from the meetings as part of an investigation into the heart surgery program at North Carolina Children’s Hospital, which is operated by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The newspaper found that physicians had spoken up about a troubling spate of deaths and complications in the children’s heart surgery program. But hospital leaders didn’t take immediate action.

One top administrator warned on tape that scaling back surgeries could hurt the hospital’s bottom line and cost the cardiologists their jobs.

The situation that the New York Times described in North Carolina parallels that at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, which stopped performing heart surgeries after the Tampa Bay Times reported on problems in the unit.

A Tampa Bay Times analysis found that the death rate among pediatric heart surgery patients at All Children’s had tripled from 2015 to 2017.

All Children’s employees, including a group of physician assistants, noticed serious problems as early as 2015 and held meetings with the supervisors, the Tampa Bay Times reported. But surgeries continued, even as program got worse. The results eventually became the worst in the state.

Johns Hopkins’ most recent financial disclosure for its six-facility health system showed a $31.7 million drop in operating profit in the first quarter this year. The health system blamed the bulk of the loss on the heart surgery program at All Children’s.

The New York Times investigation noted that Johns Hopkins was one of at least five pediatric heart surgery programs across the country to be suspended or closed over the last decade after questions were raised about performance.

UNC Health Care only made some of its death rate data public to the New York Times after numerous requests from the newsroom. The statistics showed that UNC’s children’s heart surgery program had one of the highest four-year death rates in the country.

The newspaper said it is suing the health system for more data.

UNC Health Care told the New York Times that the physicians’ concerns had been handled appropriately.

After the New York Times started reporting, the hospital ramped up efforts to find a temporary pediatric heart surgeon and reached out to families whose children had died or had unusual complications to discuss their cases.

Click here to read the New York Times investigation, and click here to catch up on the Tampa Bay Times reporting on All Children’s.

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