The neonate with major malformations: experiences in a university children's hospital in the Netherlands

Semin Pediatr Surg. 2001 Nov;10(4):222-9. doi: 10.1053/spsu.2001.26846.


Advancements in medical technology over the last decades have greatly benefited perioperative care of newborns undergoing major surgical interventions. Yet, a proportion of these babies will not survive, and doctors are forced to face the difficult ethical question of whether, in cases of severe congenital malformations or acquired diseases, the expected quality of life justifies the decision to continue, withhold, or withdraw treatment. In a tripartite approach, the authors present their relevant experiences with these newborns in the pediatric surgical department of the Sophia Children's Hospital (SCH). First the authors evaluated the mortality pattern and causes of death in surgical neonates over 2 periods (1986 through 1990 and 1996 through 2000). The mortality rate was the same, 10%. Pattern of mortality was classified into 3 groups: nonpreventable, permissible, and preventable death. The most striking difference between both mortality groups existed between the percentage of preventable deaths, 14.5% in the earlier period, versus 5% in the most recent period. Half of the preventable deaths in the former period occurred in relation to postoperative, infectious treatment complications, such as inadequate sepsis management. These errors were not seen anymore in our recent evaluation. Second, the authors studied the physical and psychosocial adjustment of former patients, particularly those operated on for digestive tract anomalies. The follow-up period encompasses from 8 to 12 years showing that the physical functioning of these children was relatively good. With respect to their cognitive and psychosocial functioning it seems justified to conclude that they are at risk for lower cognitive functioning, learning problems, and possibly lower educational levels. Third, the authors decided that ethical questions related to surgical treatment of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) actually fits within the scope of this article. They hypothesized that a particular minimum birth weight could be a decisive factor for refraining from surgery on ethical grounds in the treatment of this particular disease. A total of 116 patients with NEC were identified over a 5-year study period. Seventy-five fell into the lowest birth weight group (<1,500 g). The operative mortality rate (21 patients) increased with decreasing birth weight: group A, 29% (A1, 31%; A2, 26%); group B, 23%; and group C, 0%. The authors were particularly interested in the long-term follow-up of the A1 group (BW < 1,000 g), and 18 of the 30 survivors of this group were available for follow-up. There were 2 survivors with short bowel syndrome. Early assessment and neurodevelopmental outcome, at least 2 years after surgery, showed that in 14 of these 18 (78%) there were no major handicaps. The other 4 patients had one or more major handicaps (cerebral palsy, mental and/or visual handicap, and hearing loss). NEC-related mortality after surgery is highest for patients with birth weight less than 1,000 g (31%). However, in view of the overall good 2-year follow-up results of the survivors, we feel unable to define a minimum birth weight that, as such, could serve as a cutoff point for deciding to forbear, on ethical grounds, surgical treatment for NEC. The picture represented by our tripartite investigation of life and death in and after the intensive care unit period serves as a mirror and truthfully reflects ethical questions of our medical practices.

MeSH terms

  • Birth Weight
  • Congenital Abnormalities / mortality
  • Congenital Abnormalities / surgery*
  • Enterocolitis, Necrotizing / mortality
  • Enterocolitis, Necrotizing / surgery*
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Hospitals, Pediatric
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Netherlands
  • Postoperative Complications / epidemiology
  • Quality of Life
  • Time Factors