STA, 11 December 2018 - Giving up on the National Institute for Congenital Heart Disease, which was scheduled to become operational in May this year, Health Minister Samo Fakin announced on Tuesday that the child heart cardiology programme would continue to be run by the UKC (Univerzitetni klinični center) Ljubljana hospital, albeit as part of a separate organisational unit.
The announcement comes a year after the government founded the National Institute for Congenital Heart Disease in response to a dysfunctional programme at Slovenia's main hospital.
While UKC, seeing a series of departures by surgeons and management staff involved in the programme in recent years, has been trying to make do with foreign specialists, the institute has failed to get off the ground, also being denied funding from the health purse operator ZZZS.
Tensions were also reported between UKC and the institute and the head of the institute's board Igor Gregorič resigned last week. The acting director Brane Dobnikar, who spoke last week of a blockade of efforts to get the institute going, also drew up a resignation statement.
Fakin told the press today that he would propose to the government to abolish the institute, which he expects will take a few months to process.
A lack of staff remains an issue
"I was assured at UKC that the programme is organised optimally and that young specialists were being secured in all categories," the minister said.
He noted that Slovenia would remain dependant on foreign experts, since 100 children with congenital heart disease are not enough to make the programme feasible logistically.
Fakin said efforts were under way to set up a regional centre, to also involve Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"We were in Croatia yesterday and met with their health minister and heads of clinics and agreed we would have a talk after New Year's. They have 200 children, we have 100. If we include Bosnia, we can set up an internationally comparable centre and team," the minister announced.
UKC Ljubljana director-general Aleš Šabeder said that the first steps would already be made at the hospital next week towards establishing a new separate unit within UKC, which would combine the children's cardiology, heart surgery and intensive care units.
"I believe we've set up a stable system that can be upgraded into a well-functioning programme. It is presently still running with the help of hired specialists from neighbouring countries, but we expect younger specialists will join too. Relations are also better, stable," Šabeder said.
UKC medical director Jadranka Buturović Ponikvar explained that for now surgery on children in Ljubljana would be performed by domestic surgeons under the supervision of Czech surgeons from Prague's Motol hospital.
While praising the cooperation with Prague, Buturović Ponikvar noted that centres abroad also have staffing crises, which is why it is not good to rely only on one.
Following the announcement today, Fakin and Prime Minister Marjan Šarec met with the representatives of parents of children with congenital heart disease.
Talking to the press after the meeting, Petra Aleš expressed satisfaction that they ensured her that independent oversight, involving a foreign institution, would be introduced for the new programme.
"The oversight will allow parents to decide once and for all whether we can trust the programme," she said, adding that the parents regretted the decision to shut down the centre "but this story has ended and it's time to move on".