Background: In accordance with the Uniform Determination of Death Act, guidelines for brain death determination are developed at an institutional level, potentially leading to variability of practice. We evaluated the differences in brain death guidelines in major US hospitals with a strong presence of neurology and neurosurgery to determine whether there was evidence of variation from the guidelines as put forth by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN).
Methods: We requested the guidelines for determination of death by brain criteria from the US News and World Report top 50 neurology/neurosurgery institutions in 2006. We evaluated the guidelines for five categories of data: guideline performance, preclinical testing, clinical examination, apnea testing, and ancillary tests. We compared the guidelines directly with the AAN guidelines for consistencies/differences.
Results: There was an 82% response rate to requests. Major discrepancies were present among institutions for all five categories. Variability existed in the guidelines' requirements for performance of the evaluation, prerequisites prior to testing, specifics of the brainstem examination and apnea testing, and what types of ancillary tests could be performed, including what pitfalls or limitations might exist.
Conclusions: Major differences exist in brain death guidelines among the leading neurologic hospitals in the Unites States. Adherence to the American Academy of Neurology guidelines is variable. If the guidelines reflect actual practice at each institution, there are substantial differences in practice which may have consequences for the determination of death and initiation of transplant procedures.