An investigation has been launched into a sudden spike in deaths at a London hospital.

Barts Health NHS Trust is examining an increase in mortality rates at Whipps Cross hospital, in Leytonstone, where 260 people aged 90 or older have died in a year.

The trust, the biggest in the UK, runs five east London hospitals and its death rates are consistently among the lowest in the country. However bosses became concerned when the number of deaths at Whipps Cross between October and December increased above what would normally be expected, and ordered the internal inquiry.

Professor Jo Martin, interim medical director at Barts Health, said: “At Whipps Cross, we know we have got an older population. But in terms of our deaths between December 2014 and November 2015, our deaths in the 90 to 100 age group, we had approximately 70 of these at Newham, 20 or so at Barts, 60 at the Royal London but 260 at Whipps Cross.
“The age profile of those dying at Whipps Cross is very, very heavily skewed on those over 70, 80 and 90. We have got a much older population and sicker population there. The mortality review will look at that in the round.”

Professor Martin said the “sophisticated analyses” would examine the age of the patients and the day they were admitted to hospital. Barts Health recently changed its rules to make it easier for terminally ill patients to leave Whipps Cross “so they can die in the place of their choosing”.

Professor Martin told the trust’s board: “The trust’s overall mortality continues to be good at 0.88, but we looked at the detailed mortality figures behind that – it varies by site. We had a rise above one, which is the average, to 1.02 at Whipps Cross. That is the subject of a more detailed investigation.”

Procedures across the trust are under investigation by NHS commissioners after a series of “never events” – incidents so serious they should never have occurred.

These include five recent instances of naso-gastric tubes being inserted in the wrong place – normally into a patient’s lungs rather than their stomach. The incidents have occurred at night, when senior staff have not been working.

Staff have been ordered to wait until the morning where possible, and to check the placement of the tube – which is inserted via the nose – by X-ray. The trust, which was placed in special measures last year after being ranked “inadequate” by the NHS watchdog, faces large fines as a result of the blunders.

Professor Martin said, in relation to the threat of fines: “I’m not surprised, given the number [of never events[] we have had over the last year, that this has happened.”