A recent CNN investigation reported that from 2011 to 2013, the children’s heart surgery program at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Florida has a 12.5% mortality rate for open heart surgeries–more than three times the national average.
In response to the CNN investigation, St. Mary’s CEO Davide Carbone wrote a letter to employees stating support for the program and its heart surgeon, Dr. Michael Black. He wrote, “The patients we serve are afflicted with severe life-threatening conditions, and it is impossible to eliminate the risk of mortality.” The hospital argued that CNN incorrectly reported the mortality rate, but wouldn’t say what the hospital believes is the correct rate.
Last year, the Florida Department of Health sent a team of expert heart doctors, headed by Dr. Jeffrey Jacobs, a professor of cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins, to St. Mary’s to review the children’s heart surgery program. His suggestion was to stop doing heart surgeries on babies younger than 6 months.
The most recent baby who died was only a few weeks old when he had surgery for a severe heart defect. His mother said he needed a second surgery later that month.
St. Mary’s spokeswoman Shelly Weiss said he was “recovering well and the prognosis is good” even though the baby never left the hospital and wasn’t quite 2 months old.
What’s the problem?
Jacobs, the Johns Hopkins surgeon, stated in his report that St. Mary’s wasn’t performing enough pediatric heart surgeries in order to be good at it. In 2013, the hospital performed 23 procedures while most hospitals in the United States performing these surgeries do more than 100 a year. Anything less is considered low volume by the Society for Thoracic Surgeons.
Florida’s Department of Health and the Agency for Health Care Administration responded by saying, “Florida does not regulate the number of procedures performed at pediatric cardiac programs” and that the Agency for Health Care Administration “continues to closely monitor St. Mary’s to ensure that they are following the law.”
St. Mary’s Medical Center and the State of Florida have responded to CNN’s reporting, yet statistics about children’s heart surgery mortality rates at the hospital remain unclear, more here.
Parents are wondering why no one warned them that St. Mary’s was relatively inexperienced at such tremendously difficult and risky operations and mislead them with false bravado and inaccurate death statistics.
One mother, Nneka Campbell, said Dr. Black told her he’d never lost a single patient during his time at St. Mary’s. She was shocked when her 8-month-old daughter came out of the operating room blue and needing to be intubated. When the baby died, she found out that her daughter was the fourth baby to die after having heart surgery at St. Mary’s with Black. She was not, as her mother says she was told, the first.
“There is no room for institutions that are lying to families to get them to offer up their babies as sacrificial lambs,” Campbell says.
The hospital keeps its death rate secret. Calculating that rate required CNN to file a Freedom of Information request with the state of Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration.
According to the documents CNN obtained from the state, from 2011 to 2013, St. Mary’s Medical Center performed 48 open heart surgeries on children and babies. Independently, CNN determined that six infants died, and confirmed the deaths with parents of all six children. From those numbers, CNN was able to calculate the death rate for open heart surgeries as 12.5%, more than three times the national average of 3.3% cited by the Society for Thoracic Surgeons.
Another mother, Angie Loudon, breaks down when CNN tells her that her baby was the sixth to die after surgery with Black at St. Mary’s. She says she, too, was lied to.
“I put all my faith in him. How do you know not to put all your faith in someone?” she asks.
St. Mary’s website boasts the arrival of “nationally renowned pediatric heart surgeon Dr. Michael Black” with claims like “smaller incisions — improved self-esteem,” without providing real numbers. While most pediatric heart programs in Florida publically report its mortality rate, St. Mary’s does not. In order for CNN to get the correct numbers, they needed to file a Freedom of Information inquiry to obtain the patient caseload data so that they were able to determine the 12.5% death rate for open heart surgeries.
What does the hospital have to say? The evasion continues. The hospital continues to say that CNN is wrong about the program’s death rate, but dodges answering when it comes to offering up the correct numbers.