Background: In 1998, a process of centralisation was initiated for services for children born with a cleft lip or palate in the UK. We studied the timing of this process in England according to its impact on the number of hospitals and surgeons involved in primary surgical repairs.
Methods: All live born patients with a cleft lip and/or palate born between April 1997 and December 2008 were identified in Hospital Episode Statistics, the database of admissions to English National Health Service hospitals. Children were included if they had diagnostic codes for a cleft as well as procedure codes for a primary surgical cleft repair. Children with codes indicating additional congenital anomalies or syndromes were excluded as their additional problems could have determined when and where they were treated.
Results: We identified 10,892 children with a cleft. 21.0% were excluded because of additional anomalies or syndromes. Of the remaining 8,606 patients, 30.4% had a surgical lip repair only, 41.7% a palate repair only, and 28.0% both a lip and palate repair. The number of hospitals that carried out these primary repairs reduced from 49 in 1997 to 13, with 11 of these performing repairs on at least 40 children born in 2008. The number of surgeons responsible for repairs reduced from 98 to 26, with 22 performing repairs on at least 20 children born in 2008. In the same period, average length of hospital stay reduced from 3.8 to 3.0 days for primary lip repairs, from 3.8 to 3.3 days for primary palate repairs, and from 4.6 to 2.6 days for combined repairs with no evidence for a change in emergency readmission rates. The speed of centralisation varied with the earliest of the nine regions completing it in 2001 and the last in 2007.
Conclusions: Between 1998 and 2007, cleft services in England were centralised. According to a survey among patients' parents, the quality of cleft care improved in the same period. Surgical care became more consistent with current recommendations. However, key outcomes, including facial appearance and speech, can only be assessed many years after the initial surgical treatment.