Health authorities have launched a review into a “cluster” of baby deaths at Adelaide’s Women’s and Children’s Hospital after a parliamentary committee heard a lack of infant heart and life support services was to blame.
- A doctor has blamed the death of several babies on a lack of key services at the hospital
- Health authorities will review the “cluster” of deaths but say there is no evidence of failures
- A report to the hospital last year urged the hospital to establish a heart surgery service
Obstetrician and gynaecologist Professor John Svigos on Tuesday gave evidence that the deaths of three babies over the past month could have been prevented.
Doctors’ union official Bernadette Mulholland told the committee a fourth baby had died last week, also due to the lack of services.
Professor Svigos said the infants could have been saved if the right treatment were available at Adelaide’s central hospital for children.
He said Adelaide was the only mainland state capital city that does not offer heart surgery or external oxygenation machines (ECMOs) for babies and children, and the usual process of referring infants to a Melbourne cardiac unit was “no longer tenable” because of the COVID-19 situation.
Health Minister Stephen Wade announced this morning that SA Health would launch a review into the circumstances surrounding the deaths.
“There has been a cluster of paediatric cardiac incidents in recent weeks, the deaths of children,” Mr Wade said.
“We’re very sad, our thoughts and prayers are with the families.
“I’ve asked the Chief Medical Officer [Dr Mike Cusack] … to work with the Women’s and Children’s Hospital to review these cases, to see what we can learn.”
Dr Cusack said between six and 10 babies with significant heart abnormalities were usually born in SA each year, and that the deaths needed to be investigated.
“As a parent, whenever you read about adverse events in children, it’s always hard to read, and so my heart really does go out to each of the parents.
“Had we provided the very best available care for those children and their families? And what are the lessons learnt?”
But Dr Cusack said, from the information he had at this stage, there was no evidence of any “lapses in care or things that should have been done”.
He said the review would take between two and four weeks and would have a particular focus on the impact of COVID-19 on usual practice.
Business case warned of avoidable death
The State Opposition claims a leaked document shows the Government was advised to introduce cardiac surgery at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital for more than a year before the four babies died.
Labor spokesperson Chris Picton said a business case, prepared by doctors last year, also claimed the lack of cardiac surgery had contributed to at least one avoidable death and several near misses at the time.
The July 2019 business case, which the ABC has seen, stated that a heart surgery service at the hospital “is feasible, safe and cost-effective”.
The document warns of “avoidable mortality” as a result of the lack of an ECMO machine service there, and that “at least one avoidable death has occurred”.
The business case advises the hospital would have to recruit an experienced heart surgeon to establish the service.
It also lists “skill maintenance” as a potential problem, but argues that could be mitigated by having one surgeon perform all procedures and collaborate with adult and interstate surgical services.
Report found service ‘not viable’: Minister
But speaking on ABC Radio Adelaide earlier this morning, Mr Wade said an earlier review had rejected paediatric heart services for the hospital.
However he said the review had recommended an ECMO machine at the hospital.
The Minister said there was a “diversity of views” among doctors at the hospital about how best to manage the issue and that the hospital’s board was capable of coming to the right solution.
He added that the board had respectfully engaged with the doctors who wrote the July 2019 business case.
He said the board was working to get “the best possible service for babies and children in South Australia”.
Mother joins call for services
Kylie Baker, who has travelled to Melbourne several times since her daughter Abby was born so she could receive life-saving heart surgery, joined the call for paediatric cardiac services to be set up in Adelaide.
Ms Baker said the trips took a heavy emotional and financial toll.
“If it was in Adelaide, you’ve got family, you’ve got your friends, you’ve got a support network,” she said.
She said she was devastated to learn of the four babies’ deaths.
“It’s heartbreaking and it shouldn’t be happening. These are little babies,” she said.