UNC Health Care is pushing back against some details of a New York Times investigation that detailed concern regarding the quality of care some children with serious heart issues received at the UNC Children’s Hospital.

The Times article details concerns among cardiologists who brought their worries to their division chief. Secret recordings of alleged conversations with supervisors, which were provided to The Times, reveal that the chief of pediatric cardiology told doctors, “It’s a nightmare right now. We are in crisis, and everyone is aware of that.”

A series of meetings allegedly occurred in 2016 and 2017 after patients “with complex conditions had been dying at higher-than-expected rates in past years, some of the doctors suspected.”

Part of the concern was that UNC Health Care leadership was not sharing mortality data internally or with outside agencies, as some other hospitals do. Some cardiologists had discussed whether to begin referring patients to other hospitals, according to the report.

Data eventually released to The Times showed that over the four-year period ending in June 2017 UNC “had a higher death rate than nearly all of the 82 institutions nationwide that do publicly report.”

The newspaper went on to point, through more recordings, to concerns about the culture in the department.

The article points to UNC as an example of concerns over the “quality and consistency of care provided by dozens of pediatric heart surgery programs across the county.” Some of that concern can originate from competing children’s hospitals in close proximity – as UNC and Duke are – that cut into surgeons being able to perform enough surgeries to develop experience on the complex surgeries.

The Times article reports on UNC hiring a new chief surgeon in June 2018 and that the mortality rate had improved since the change.

UNC Health Care issued a statement Thursday saying that the program had improved through changes in recent years to address some of the “culture issues” that had been identified and were “handled appropriately.”

“We are proud of our pediatric congenital heart surgery program, and our current team is receiving top results that would place us among the best in the nation. We have been engaged in continuous quality improvement efforts for decades and have made significant improvements in the past 10+ years.”

The health system also pointed to the complexity of many cases that are referred to the UNC Pediatric Congenital Heart Surgery program.

“To characterize today’s program as anything but strong, would not only be misleading, but not factual. To say we ignored issues would also be false.”