Federal Investigation of Infant Deaths Following Open Heart SurgeriesJun 8, 2015
The federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has launched an investigation into deaths of babies following open heart surgeries at St. Mary's Medical Center in Florida.
The investigation was launched in response to a recent story from CNN that showed the West Palm Beach hospital had a mortality rate of 12.5 percent for infant open heart surgery from 2011 to 2013. This rate is three times the national average, according to CNN.
In an email, Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, wrote, "We take these allegations very seriously. CMS is actively investigating these complaints." This agency is investigating because most of the infants who had heart surgery at St. Mary's were Medicaid patients. CNN reports that Tenet Healthcare, which owns St. Mary's, did not respond to a request for comment on the investigation, nor did Florida Governor Rick Scott, the state's Agency for Healthcare Administration, or the state Department of Health.
On Friday, a federal official told CNN, "We want to make sure people are not exposed unnecessarily to harm." A mother who lost her 10-month-old daughter, after heart surgery at St. Mary's in 2012, said, "They need to close this place down." She said she was encouraged that the federal government was investigating. CNN reported that even after some children had died, parents of sick infants say Dr. Michael Black, who had been brought in from Stanford University to head the St. Mary's program, told them he had never lost a single patient during his time at St. Mary's.
Studies show hospitals with fewer surgeries tend to have higher death rates, especially when the surgeries are complex. CNN reports that the numbers at St. Mary's are very low. According to documents filed by the hospital with the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration, St. Mary's volume of open heart surgery cases fell from 27 in 2012 to 18 in 2014. Data from the Society of Thoracic Surgeons indicate that 40 percent of pediatric heart surgery centers in the United States perform more than 250 surgeries a year. Eighty percent of centers have more than 100 cases a year. Anything less than 100 cases a year is considered "low volume" by the society. Dr. Roger Mee, the former chief of pediatric heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic said it's hard to develop a skill if you use it "only occasionally." "With something as complex and dangerous as children's heart surgery, you have to develop a whole team, and it's hard to develop a team around 27 cases," Mee said.
CNN reported the deaths of nine babies after heart surgery since the program began in 2011. The most recent death occurred last week. CNN also reported that a tenth child was left paralyzed after surgery.
Last year, an expert review panel recommended that the hospital stop performing heart surgeries on babies under six months of age and not perform complex procedures even on older babies.