High rate of newborn deaths after heart surgery raises questions for Philadelphia hospital

Between 2009 and 2014, one in four babies who underwent complex heart surgery at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia died following the operations, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation.


This represents a mortality rate three times higher than that of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, one of six other Pennsylvania organizations where surgeons perform the procedure. In a state evaluation of those six hospitals, St. Christopher's was the only one to decline to publicly reveal how many of its newborn patients died after complex heart surgery.

"While we are making progress growing our volumes and improving our performance, we are undertaking a comprehensive review of our cardiovascular surgery program," the hospital told the Inquirer in a Friday statement. St. Christopher's officials provided information on its overall mortality rates for heart surgery patients of all ages, but did not offer up data specific to newborns.

However, using insurance claims data collected by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, the Inquirer determined that of 121 newborns who underwent heart surgery at St. Christopher's from 2009 to 2014, 29 died — a mortality rate of 24 percent. In comparison, of 784 newborns that underwent the surgery at CHOP, 67 died, representing a mortality rate of 8.5 percent.

A Monday statement from St. Christopher's sent to the Inquirer confirmed that the hospital has stopped conducting elective heart surgeries pending the results of an internal review, but will continue to respond to the needs of emergency patients, including those that require cardiac surgery.

In August 2015, St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., was investigated by CNN after it became apparent that its mortality rates for newborns undergoing heart surgery were more than three times the national average. Soon after the investigation, which triggered a CMS inquiry, St. Mary's announced a permanent closure of its cardiac surgery program. Both St. Mary's and St. Christopher's are owned by Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare.

This is not the first investigation into care practices at St. Christopher's. A 2012 whistleblower lawsuit filed against the hospital alleged that from 2007 to 2009, 10 of St. Christopher's heart surgery patients died after their procedures due to deficient care, according to the Inquirer.

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