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NHS: ECMO Machines

Volume 744: debated on Monday 22 April 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether extra-corporal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machines that are capable of restoring heart functions some hours after an apparently fatal heart attack are in use in any NHS hospitals; and, if not, what consideration is being given to their installation.

My Lords, the equipment and facilities to undertake cardiac ECMO support are available in all five NHS adult cardiothoracic transplant centres in England and in the five national respiratory ECMO centres, three of which share a location. Provision of cardiac ECMO support is a complex intervention with significant risks attached to it. A cardiac ECMO service requires a fully trained team to be available around the clock and does not consist of simply purchasing the medical equipment.

That is very good news and I thank the Minister for it. It is desirable to have these facilities available. Does he agree that the group which would benefit most of all from this would be young people who die suddenly and unexpectedly, often in the sporting field? This is a much greater tragedy for families than the more usual cardiac attack at a later age. Should not more publicity be given so that people involved in those activities know that such facilities are available? You could get a young person by helicopter to one of those centres within the number of hours that your life would be prolonged for.

My Lords, there is, I understand, no intervention capable of restoring heart function some hours after a heart attack. The only exception is not applicable to heart attacks but to people who have had circulatory arrest due to hypothermia—for example, people who have been buried in avalanches or immersed in very cold water. That area is currently being researched. It is only in a very limited number of circumstances that ECMO support can improve a patient’s chances of survival following cardiac arrest—usually in patients who suffer in-hospital cardiac arrest following surgery.

My Lords, as the noble Earl indicated in his opening remarks, a typical facility required in the provision of a service such as ECMO for adults who suffer acute myocardial infarction would include a perfusionist, intensive care facilities, an intervention cardiologist, a cardiologist expert in cardiac failure, a cardiac surgeon, together with specialist nurses. Preliminary results of studies suggest that the survival rate might be less than 30%. Does the noble Earl agree that more research is needed before such a treatment can be made available routinely?

I fully agree. The noble Lord is quite right. ECMO cannot be provided by just any ICU team. It is a highly specialised treatment with significant potential for serious complications, and considerable expertise is therefore required, including having a multidisciplinary team of the kind that he outlined. In general, capacity has much more to do with having suitably trained staff than with having the equipment itself.

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my health interests. On the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, about evidence, would the noble Earl consider referring this to NICE for its expert advice?

I shall certainly take that idea away with me, but I think that there is broad consensus among the medical community that the key to success with ECMO is getting the patients connected to the equipment quickly. Although it is a moving scenario, all the evidence so far suggests that ECMO confers no benefit if some hours have elapsed since the cardiac arrest.

My Lords, services that need ECMO machines would currently, in the new world, be commissioned by NHS England. Will my noble friend explain to the House what role, if any, the department now has in commissioning such services?

My Lords, the department itself no longer has a role in commissioning highly specialised services. NHS England is implementing a single operating model for the commissioning of 143 specialised services. That replaces the previous arrangement whereby 10 regional organisations were responsible for commissioning specialised services and, to be frank, there were wide variations in the standard of those services. The new operating model represents a significant change to the previous system and should result in better outcomes.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Glenfield Hospital in Leicester, which has ECMO, saved many lives in the swine flu epidemic last year and does more than just hearts?

I am fully aware of that. Glenfield has been leading the development of ECMO services. It is one of the biggest ECMO centres in Europe. It is currently the largest provider of children’s ECMO in the country, treating about 70 paediatric ECMO patients a year, and now provides an adult service.

My Lords, can my noble friend clear up a point of confusion that may have arisen about his first Answer to this Question? It was reported in the Times newspaper by the science editor that people could be brought back from the dead up to seven hours after their hearts had stopped. Is that a report on which we can lay much credence?

My Lords, my advice is that in most cases of cardiac arrest that is not possible. Where there has been circulatory arrest in the particular conditions that I described, such as immersion in very cold water, the heart can in some circumstances be restarted, but I would not wish to excite noble Lords’ interest in this technique without proper evidence. I am afraid that the article, which I did see, raises people’s hopes perhaps unfairly.

My Lords, can we take it from the answer that the Minister gave two questions ago and the praise that he rightly gave to Glenfield Hospital in Leicester that that ECMO unit will not be closed down?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, that decision is interdependent with the decision around the Safe and Sustainable review of children’s cardiac services. Until that issue is determined, it is not possible for me to say what will happen to the children’s ECMO service at Glenfield.