How a Coventry Telegraph campaign helped save lives

Warren Manger is the Coventry Telegraph’s health reporter. Here he describes how one of the paper’s campaigns saved two lives by helping to secure live-saving surgery for two readers.

As soon as the initial email arrived in my inbox it was clear this had the potential to be a significant story.

Great-grandmother Barbara Judge had been refused funding for a lifesaving operation to repair her aortic aneurysm.

Her distraught family branded the decision a “death sentence” as doctors had warned Barbara her large aneurysm could burst at any time, killing her in minutes.

When I first interviewed Barbara she showed me a letter from her consultant. It confirmed that he had applied for extraordinary funding as the keyhole surgery – a fenestrated endovascular aortic aneurysm repair - was not routinely funded in Coventry.

However, the funding panel had rejected his request. When I asked NHS Coventry to explain the decision, it claimed a new study had found that the evidence for this surgery was “weak”.

Although I immediately offered Barbara and her family my support, i warned them our chances of overturning the decision were slim.

We highlighted Barbara’s plight on our front page and followed that with a second splash, reporting how local MPs had lobbied the health secretary to intervene.

It seemed unlikely that would be enough to sway the funding panel, so i started searching for more evidence to support Barbara’s case.

First I found the Primary Care trust had funded the procedure before. i then tracked down the British Journal of Surgery article which NHS Coventry had cited.

The study concluded the operation was a viable alternative to traditional open surgery, though it did acknowledge that there were many unanswered questions as the procedure was relatively new.

This was confirmed by some of the country’s leading endovascular surgeons.

They told me the track record for this particular procedure was so much better, that a randomised trial to clinically prove its effectiveness would be unfair to those patients who were selected for open surgery.

Within days of confronting NHS Coventry with my findings the funding panel performed a u-turn and agreed to pay for Barbara’s operation.

It also agreed to fund the surgery for a second patient, Michael Wade.

Both patients had the surgery at the royal Free Hospital in London in May this year and I was delighted to see them make great progress when I caught up with them this month.

Since my investigation NHS Coventry has commissioned a specialist service to carry out the surgery at university Hospital in Coventry.

Patients will still be considered on a case by case basis, but they will now be measured against clear clinical criteria instead of facing an extraordinary funding panel.

The medical criteria have been drawn up with the help of Mr Asif Mahmood, the surgeon who put Barbara and Michael forward for surgery and carried out their operations.

Barbara and Michael credit my investigation with saving their lives. I am honoured to have made such a difference for them and their families.

At a time when the NHS is under so much pressure, I believe it is vital that journalists are prepared to engage with the medical evidence and - where appropriate - challenge the authorities to ensure patients get the treatment they need and deserve.

Warren Manger is the Coventry Telegraph’s health reporter

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