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Fatality rates among infants who undergo heart surgery

Oregon residents may be shocked to learn that doctors performing complex surgical procedures on infants at some American hospitals may be lacking crucial skills and experience. A 2012 study of pediatric heart surgery in 73 hospitals found fatality rates ranging from 6.5 percent to 38.4 percent, and further attention was drawn to the issue by a report published in JAMA in October 2015.

CNN launched an investigation into pediatric heart surgery after several babies died following heart procedures at a Florida hospital. The hospital at the center of the investigation has since stopped performing this type of surgery, but a number of surgeons who are called upon to repair mistakes made by their colleagues say that the skills of surgeons at many other medical facilities can also be lacking.

The hearts of newborn infants are about the same size as a strawberry, and cardiac surgeons say that working on them is far more challenging than open heart surgery performed on adults. They point to the outcomes of a particularly difficult type of heart procedure known as a Norwood as an example of the difficulties associated with operating on small children. While the survival rate is about nine out of 10 for infants who have a Norwood performed by a seasoned pediatric heart surgeon, death rates of up to 40 percent have been reported when the doctors involved have less experience.

The unwillingness of physicians to point out mistakes made by their peers can be a major challenge in medical malpractice cases stemming from surgical negligence, and this can be particularly true when complex procedures have been performed on infants. In these situations, personal injury attorneys may call upon experts in the area to establish what would be considered an adequate standard of care.