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Medical end-of-life decisions in neonates and infants in Flanders

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Provoost, V.; Cools, F.; Mortier, F.; Bilsen, J.; Ramet, J.; Vandenplas, Y.; Deliens, L.

BACKGROUND: Paediatricians are increasingly confronted with end-of-life decisions in critically ill neonates and infants. Little is known about the frequency and characteristics of end-of-life decisions in this population, nor about the relation with clinical and patients’ characteristics. METHODS: A death-certificate study was done for all deaths of neonates and infants in the whole of Flanders over a 12 month period (August, 1999, to July, 2000). We sent an anonymous questionnaire by mail to the attending physician for each of the 292 children who died under the age of 1 year. Information on patients was obtained from national registers. An attitude study was done for all physicians who attended at least one death during the study period. FINDINGS: 253 (87%) of the 292 questionnaires were returned, and 121 (69%) of the 175 physicians involved completed the attitude questions. An end-of-life decision was possible in 194 (77%; 95% CI 70.4-82.4) of the 253 deaths studied, and such a decision was made in 143 cases (57%; 48.9-64.0). Lethal drugs were administered in 15 cases among 117 early neonatal deaths and in two cases among 77 later deaths (13%vs 3%; p=0.018). The attitude study showed that 95 (79%; 70.1-85.5) of the 121 physicians thought that their professional duty sometimes includes the prevention of unnecessary suffering by hastening death and 69 (58%; 48.1-66.5) of 120 supported legalisation of life termination in some cases. INTERPRETATION: Death of neonates and infants is commonly preceded by an end-of-life decision. The type of decision varied substantially according to the age of the child. Most physicians favour legalisation of the use of lethal drugs in some cases.

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