Children's Heart Services 'stretched to breaking point'

Children's heart surgery is under the microscope
Children's heart surgery is under the microscope Photo: ITV News

It was a review intended to bring about change to part of the health service that, by its own admission, was stretched to the limit.

Safe and Sustainable evolved after an investigation into the deaths of 30 children at a hospital in Bristol. It revealed that medical staff had made mistakes brought on by pressure they were working under and it pointed to the need for changes to the way the service nationally was run.

The proposals would see the number of children's heart units reduced from 10 to 7, creating centres of excellence which would have more specialised surgeons working in the same location. It was a plan that has the backing of almost every medical body in the country

Under pressure: children's heart surgery is under review
Under pressure: children's heart surgery is under review Credit: ITV News

Ten years on from that initial call, the situation is exactly the same. The Safe and Sustainable panel, led by members of the medical profession, decided earlier this year which hospitals would stay open and which would close.

The Freeman Hospital, in Newcastle, was the one chosen to be the specialist centre for the North

But in October the Government put a stop to things. The Department of Health stepped in and ordered an independent review. It's a delay that has angered many within the profession.

Surgeons say the system is already creaking and change is needed soon. They fear this review will delay things further and put the lives of other youngsters at risk.

Leslie Hamilton moved from Children's surgery to adult surgery because of the pressure
Leslie Hamilton moved from Children's surgery to adult surgery because of the pressure Credit: ITV News

Leslie Hamilton has been involved with the Safe and Sustainable review since the outset.

A cardiac surgeon, he spent 15 years working in the children's heart unit at the Freeman. But the pressures heaped upon him forced him to move to adult cardiology where, he says, the psychological pressures are far less.

He says the fact no decision has been made after more than 10 years is very frustrating.

It's left people like Ivan Hollingsworth, from Tyneside, in a difficult position. His son Sebastian was born with a congenital heart problem and needs regular treatment at the Freeman Hospital.

But Ivan says he's frustrated at the lack of progress. He feels he's being forced to place his child in the hands of surgeon's who, by their own admission, are working under a system that is in need of repair

Ivan Hollingsworth and his son Seb Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

As a parent what do I do if my child dies when he goes into surgery next time? How do I cope with that knowing that the solution is there just people didn't have the gumption to make it?

– Ivan Hollingsworth
Seb Hollingsworth needed surgery when he was just days old Credit: Ivan Hollingsworth

The review panel is now visiting every hospital involved and will report back to the Secretary of State for Health in March.

But there's no guarantee it will uphold the original decision and no guarantee there will be any decision at all.

Professor Martin Elliot, a cardiologist based in London, says if change doesn't happen then the NHS risks losing talented surgeons to lucrative positions abroad.