Background: The ethical issue of foregoing life-sustaining treatment for newborn infants at high risk of death or severe disability is extensively debated, but there is little information on how physicians in different countries actually confront this issue to reach end-of-life decisions. The EURONIC project aimed to investigate practices as reported by physicians themselves.
Methods: The study recruited a large, representative sample of 122 neonatal intensive-care units (NICUs) by census (in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Sweden) or stratified random sampling (in France, Germany, the UK, Italy, and Spain) with an overall response rate of 86%. Physicians' practices of end-of-life decision-making were investigated through an anonymous, self-administered questionnaire. 1235 completed questionnaires were returned (response rate 89%).
Findings: In all countries, most physicians reported having been involved at least once in setting limits to intensive care because of incurable conditions (61-96%); smaller proportions reported such involvement because of a baby's poor neurological prognosis (46-90%). Practices such as continuation of current treatment without intensification and withholding of emergency manoeuvres were widespread, but withdrawal of mechanical ventilation was reported by variable proportions (28-90%). Only in France (73%) and the Netherlands (47%) was the administration of drugs with the aim of ending life reported with substantial frequency. Age, length of professional experience, and the importance of religion in the physician's life affected the likelihood of reporting of non-treatment decisions.
Interpretation: A vast majority of neonatologists in European NICUs have been involved in end-of-life limitation of treatments, but type of decision-making varies among countries. Culture-related and other country-specific factors are more relevant than characteristics of individual physicians or units in explaining such variability.