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Palliative care in a tertiary neonatal intensive care unit: a 10-year review

Abstract

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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