Medical end-of-life decisions among newborns in neonates and infants in Flanders, Belgium.
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.
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.
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.
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.