Death in the intensive care nursery: physician practice of withdrawing and withholding life support


Death in the intensive care nursery: physician practice of withdrawing and withholding life support


Wall SN; Partridge JC






Humans; infant; Intensive Care Units; Medical Futility; Euthanasia; Life Support Care; quality of life; Pediatric; Empirical Approach; Death and Euthanasia; decision making; Newborn; ICU Decision Making; Very Low Birth Weight; Passive; San Francisco; Life Support Systems; University of California


OBJECTIVE: To determine the frequency of selective nontreatment of extremely premature, critically ill, or malformed infants among all infant deaths in a level III intensive care nursery (ICN) and to determine the reasons documented by neonatologists for their decisions to withdraw or withhold life support. METHODS: This was a descriptive study based on review of the medical records of all 165 infants who died at a university-based level III ICN during 3 years. We determined whether each death had occurred despite the use of all available technologies to keep the infant alive or whether these were withheld or withdrawn, thereby leading to the infant's death. We also determined whether neonatologists documented either "futility" or "quality of life" as a reason to limit medical interventions. RESULTS: One hundred sixty-five infants died among the 1609 infants admitted during the study period. One hundred eight infant deaths followed the withdrawal of life support, 13 deaths followed the withholding of treatment, and 44 deaths occurred while infants continued to receive maximal life-sustaining treatment. For 90 (74%) of the 121 deaths attributable to withholding of withdrawal of treatment, physicians cited that death was imminent and treatment was futile. Quality-of-life concerns were cited by the neonatologists as reasons to limit treatment in 62 (51%). Quality of life was the only reason cited for limiting treatment for 28 (23%) of the 121 deaths attributable to withholding or withdrawal of treatment. CONCLUSIONS: The majority of deaths in the ICN occurred as a result of selective nontreatment by neonatologists, with few infants receiving maximal support until the actual time of death. Neonatologists often documented that quality-of-life concerns were considered in decisions to limit treatment; however, the majority of these decisions were based on their belief that treatment was futile. Prospective studies are needed to elucidate the determinants of neonatologists' practice decisions of selective nontreatment for marginally viable or damaged infants.


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Wall SN; Partridge JC, “Death in the intensive care nursery: physician practice of withdrawing and withholding life support,” Pediatric Palliative Care Library, accessed September 24, 2023,