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Palliative care in a tertiary neonatal intensive care unit: a 10-year review
  1. Stanley Ka Fai Ng1,
  2. Ngaire Keenan2,
  3. Sophie Swart2 and
  4. Mary Judith Berry2,3
  1. 1 Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Nelson Marlborough District Health Board, Nelson Hospital, Nelson, New Zealand
  2. 2 Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Capital & Coast District Health Board, Wellington Regional Hospital, Wellington, New Zealand
  3. 3 Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, University of Otago, Wellington, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to Dr Stanley Ka Fai Ng, Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Nelson Marlborough District Health Board, Nelson Hospital, Nelson 7042, New Zealand; stanleykfng{at}


Objectives When active treatment is no longer in the best interests of the patient, redirection of care to palliation is an important transition. We review, within a tertiary neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), the journey leading to the decision to redirect care, the means of symptom control and the provision of psychosocial supports.

Methods A retrospective review of all 166 deaths of NICU-affiliated patients during a 10- year epoch. Medical notes were reviewed, and the provision and type of, or barriers to, effective palliative care was defined.

Results Extreme prematurity accounted for 71/145 (49%) of deaths with relatively high proportions of Māori 17/71 (25%) and Pacific Islanders 9/71 (13%). Almost all eligible infants received some form of palliation. Transition from curative to palliative care was refused by the family in a single case. Median time from decision to redirect care until first recorded action was 80 min, and median time from action until death was 60 min. The majority of infants received some form of comfort cares, (128/166) most commonly morphine (94/128, 73%). Three infants had documented seizure activity or respiratory distress but did not receive any pharmacological intervention. Psychosocial supports were offered in 98/145 (67%) of cases, but only 71/145 (49%) of families were formally offered an opportunity to discuss the infant’s clinical course after their death.

Conclusions Clinical documentation of care plans was often incomplete, potentially leading to inconsistent delivery of care, increased risk of symptom breakthrough and/or inadequate psychosocial supports for family. Formal individualised palliative care plans are under development to standardise documentation and improve therapeutic and psychosocial interventions available to the infant and their family.

  • end-of-life
  • integrative
  • neonatal
  • neonatology
  • palliative
  • palliation

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  • Contributors SKFN, NK and SS were responsible for data collection and data analysis. SN and MJB were responsible for the initial draft and subsequent versions of this manuscript. SKFN was employed by Capital & Coast District Health Board during data collection and initial data analysis and manuscript drafting. SKFN is now employed by Nelson-Marlborough District Health Board.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Disclaimer The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Capital & Coast District Health Board or University of Otago.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement All audit data are anonymised and kept in encrypted database. Data can be made available on request.

  • Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.