Trouble at UNC: State launches investigation into pediatric heart surgery program

Prompted by a New York Times deep-dive into elevated death rates at North Carolina Children’s Hospital, North Carolina’s secretary of health on May 31 called for an investigation into the hospital’s pediatric heart surgery unit.

Secretary Mandy Cohen said in a statement she and a team from North Carolina’s division of health service regulation would work together with federal regulators to look into events that unfolded at North Carolina Children’s—part of the University of North Carolina Medical Center in Chapel Hill—between 2016 and 2017. While Wesley Burks, chief executive of UNC Health Care, maintained the Times’ criticism was “overstated,” last week’s article pinpointed hard-to-ignore concerns about pitfalls in the pediatric heart program.

In secret audio recordings captured by the Times, cardiologists expressed their concerns about unexpectedly high death rates at the UNC hospital, including among children undergoing relatively low-risk procedures. Some were skeptical of Michael Mill, the chief surgeon at the time, and others admitted they wouldn’t feel comfortable sending their own kids into surgery at the hospital.

“People are well aware,” Timothy Hoffman, the chief of pediatric cardiology at North Carolina Children’s, said in one recording. “Nobody has their head in the sand like they’re not aware that the lack of cardiac intensivists, and the lack of nurses, and the lack of a carved-out CICU, and the lack of a CIC unit, and the lack of this and the lack of that is not piling up.

“I mean, our house is in total disarray. This is crazy what we’re doing. I should be as pissed as anybody, and in fact maybe more. I’ve never seen anything like it, quite frankly. And we’re going backwards, not forward.”

Read the Times’ full investigation below: