CAMPAIGNERS, families and doctors celebrated last night as the future of Oxfordshire’s childrens heart services was secured.

A link between Oxford and Southampton hospitals – which sees local children cared for in Oxford but receive specialist surgery in Southampton – was saved as experts deciding the future of children’s heart surgery gave the arrangement their full backing.

It was part of “Option B”, one of a series under consideration for provision of paediatric heart care throughout England and Wales.

The decision signals the end of two years of uncertainty and worry for parents of Oxfordshire children with heart problems and the surgeons who care for them, both here and in Southampton.

The Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts was asked to decide the future of children’s heart services after the Government announced that it wanted fewer, larger centres carrying out more operations, to make delicate surgery on children safer.

At the moment, there are 11 centres which carry out heart surgery on children. Operations at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford were suspended in 2010 after the deaths of four babies.

And the suspension remained in force when the JR was ruled out of the running to become one of the future specialist ‘super-centres’ carrying out children’s heart surgery after it was found least likely to meet the criteria.

But the hospital forged a unique working relationship with Southampton General Hospital, which allowed children to continue to receive all pre- and post-operation care in Oxford and undergo surgical procedures in Southampton.

A single clinical team works between the two hospitals.

Anne Thompson, a paediatric consultant at the JR, said: “This is excellent news for Oxford.

“It means we can continue with the working relationship we’ve developed with Southampton over past two years and can become an example to other centres.

“I think parents and patients will be relieved the final decision has been made and we’re no longer in any doubt and they can move forward from here.

“This is the best outcome we could have seen from this process.”

The new look for paediatric heart services in England will see seven surgical centres developed to carry out operations.

They are Freeman Hospital in Newcastle; Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool; Birmingham Children's Hospital; Bristol Royal Hospital for Children; and Southampton General Hospital, as well London’s Great Ormond Street and Evelina hospitals.

They will be supported by a number of cardiology centres, which do not perform surgery but provide peripheral care for children, including the John Radcliffe.

The unique agreement between Oxford and Southampton means the two hospitals are ahead of the other hospitals, which will now need to establish working relationships with their regional surgical centre partners.

Professor Edward Baker, the medical director of the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the JR, said: “We are committed to keeping the services as local as possible and to providing a children’s cardiology centre within the network that works well for patients and for the clinical teams involved.

“We wish to thank the parents of our young patients who have supported us and the network during the period of consultation.”

Oxford East MP Andrew Smith said: “The key thing is to build on this, so that children from our area who need to have surgery can have as much possible care closer to home.”

  • Jude Stevenson will always be grateful to surgeons at the John Radcliffe Hospital who saved the life of her three-year-old daughter Eilish when she suffered heart failure in 2009.

Eilish had a virus that attacked her heart. She was rushed by ambulance to the JR as an emergency admission.

Eilish later had to have further treatment from Oxford heart specialist Dr Neil Wilson – but this was carried out at Southampton General Hospital under the partnership arrangement.

Ms Stevenson said that she supported the connection between Oxford and Southampton because it represented the best care for her daughter and others in a similar situation.

But the mother of two, who lives in Abingdon and is chairman of Oxfordshire charity Young Hearts, said the decision taken yesterday was bittersweet, because she knew what parents who had just lost surgery services at their local heart care centres would be going through.

She said: “It’s good for us and Young Hearts, as we’ve already got a network in place.

“But we are very, very happy with the decision.

“We’re one step ahead and the link we have created with Southampton will be used as an example of really good working.”