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Monday, March 15, 1999 Published at 22:16 GMT


Inquiry promises further revelations

Parents wanted a wider ranging investigation than that by the GMC

By BBC West Health Correspondent Matthew Hill

The Bristol Heart Babies
The General Medical Council did not investigate every issue raised by the performance of Mr James Wisheart's cardiac team.

But since the story first broke, the BBC has uncovered other alarming details of events at Bristol Royal Infirmary.

Doctors were alarmed for years

As long ago as the early 1980s doctors were refusing to send patients to Bristol because they were worried about the results -yet no official action was taken until 12 years later.


[ image: Problems occurred outside paediatric surgery]
Problems occurred outside paediatric surgery
The BBC established that these concerns about Bristol had been common knowledge among children's specialists in the south west of England for many years.

Dr George Sutherland, a cardiologist from Southampton, told Panorama about his fears in June 1989.

"From the time I was appointed in 1983 as a children's cardiologist, there were within the profession some doubts about the quality of cardiac surgery being performed in Bristol and certainly worries about the mortality figures in young children," he said.

Deaths kept secret

Five months ago the BBC also revealed disturbing new evidence of at least 23 fatal procedures carried out by Mr Wisheart, which had until then been secret.

These are on top of the 29 deaths the GMC investigated.

Another worrying case is that of Ian Stewart from Sidmouth in Devon. He suffered severe brain damage during one of these procedures.

Ian was only four months old when he was diagnosed with a hole in the heart condition known as truncus arteriosis.

His father Jim explained what happened before the operation.

He said: "The cardiologists told us there was a 20% chance Ian might die.

"Mr Wisheart first told my wife it was 50-50 and before the operation he told us there was a one in three chance he might die.

"As far as brain damage goes, Mr Wisheart assured us that it was so rare today that it just does not happen, and if it did happen they would know."

Figures hid failure rate

But the BBC learnt from reliable medical sources that the figure the Stewarts were quoted was in stark contrast to Mr Wisheart's success record.

He had performed 11 TA operations on children under one over a period of seven years. Of those, nine had died. This compared with a UK average of 18%.

And the BBC has also learnt of another whole series of operations with a death rate twice the national average. These have yet to be investigated. They are known as TAPVD operations.

Taken over a 10-year period from 1984, Mr Wisheart performed 29 such operations, with 14 deaths - a mortality rate of 48%.

The average death rate for the UK during this time was 18%.

Adult death rate was high too

As far back as 1988 the former chief executive of the South West Regional Health Authority Catherine Hawkins had concerns about Mr Wisheart's high mortality rate in adult heart surgery.

It was later found to be four times higher than colleagues. This may or may not be investigated by the inquiry.

In their defence, all three doctors have argued they were working in far from ideal circumstances, with operations on children taking place at the BRI alongside adult cases and with little of the paediatric support that most other children's hospitals enjoyed.

The two surgeons also argued that many of their cases were particularly difficult and that there were several occasions when they had to deal with complications which were not diagnosed before the operation.

It is hoped the inquiry will reveal more about the role of the cardiologists who referred patients to Bristol.



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In this section

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Tragedy of the heart op babies

Coroner in the dark on organ retention

Ward known as 'departure lounge'

TV doctor to help Bristol inquiry

Bristol mother 'devastated' by organ retention

Bristol whistleblower offers evidence via video

Organ scandal doctors 'presumed too much'

Parents blast hospital over missing organs

'Hospital gave me baby's heart in box'

GMC chief frustrates parents

Heart nurse's 'gut feeling' about Bristol

Mother 'rushed' into switching off life-support

Lifting the shame of Bristol

Surgeon tells of 'chronic workload'

NHS 'cavalier' over organ consent

Parents praise Bristol heart surgeons

Bristol chief: Managers powerless to intervene

Bristol unit used 'out-of-date operation'

Disgraced doctor loses appeal

'Travesty of brain-damaged success'

Grieving father suspected cover-up

Surgeon obtained consent 'fraudulently'

Bereaved parents 'treated shamefully'

Bristol surgeon 'saved baby'

Bristol inquiry hears of stolen database

Parents pack inquiry launch

Uncovering the Bristol scandal