Care in a special heart surgery unit at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., became so troubled that last year one in 10 patients died and others suffered devastating complications before procedures were halted, a year-long investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found.
The Heart Institute at All Children’s was dedicated to children with heart defects and had been working in recent years to grow in size and prestige, according to the hospital, which announced it would integrate into the Johns Hopkins Health System in 2010. But through extensive interviews with current and former employees and family members of those treated there and a decade’s worth of billing records, the newspaper probe, published online Wednesday, identified many instances of treatment gone horribly wrong.
Some children, even ones undergoing less complex procedures, suffered complications such as infections that regulators now consider preventable or more unusual issues such as needles lost inside infants, bursting sutures and failing patches for holes in tiny hearts. The hospital’s mortality rate for heart surgery patients tripled from 2015 to 2017, becoming the highest for such units in Florida.
Details of potential errors and complications were kept from parents, though some discovered them later through autopsy or medical records. Many told the Times they had chosen the hospital based on its reputation and its connection to the Baltimore-based Hopkins, routinely ranked a top medical institution — and known in medical circles for it innovation in patient safety.
Some families lost children after being told the procedures did not carry high risks. Others now cope with children who have extreme mental and physical limitations after suffering strokes or other damage. None of the families has filed suit, according to the Times.
The investigation found that staff raised safety concerns as early as 2015 but the hospital, led by administrators sent by Hopkins, disregarded warnings and didn’t stop performing the most complex procedures until early last year. All surgeries were curtailed eventually and a review launched. The status of two surgeons connected to most of the complications is unclear.
In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, All Children’s said it “is defined by our commitment to patient safety and providing the highest quality care possible to the children and families we serve. An important part of that commitment is a willingness to learn. When we became aware of challenges with our heart institute we took action to address them.”
The hospital said it initially stopped performing complex cases and brought in a surgeon from Baltimore. Then it halted all surgeries after that surgeon left. The hospital said it is currently reviewing the program and recruiting new surgeons with aid from Hopkins and plans to resume surgeries “when all involved are confident that the care being delivered meets the high standards set by this organization.”
A statement from Johns Hopkins Medicine to The Baltimore Sun said, “We are devastated when children suffer, and losing a child is something that no parent should have to endure. We are continuing to take a very close look at the program, and will not resume open heart surgeries until we are confident this program at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital delivers care that meets the highest standards.”