Objective: To clarify the process of end-of-life decision-making in culturally different neonatal intensive care units (NICUs).
Study design: Review of medical files of newborns >22 weeks gestation who died in the delivery room (DR) or the NICU during 12 months in 4 NICUs (Chicago, Milwaukee, Montreal, and Groningen). We categorized deaths using a 2-by-2 matrix and determined whether mechanical ventilation was withdrawn/withheld and whether the child was dying despite ventilation or physiologically stable but extubated for neurological prognosis.
Results: Most unstable patients in all units died in their parents' arms after mechanical ventilation was withdrawn. In Milwaukee, Montreal, and Groningen, 4% to 12% of patients died while receiving cardiopulmonary resuscitation. This proportion was higher in Chicago (31%). Elective extubation for quality-of-life reasons never occurred in Chicago and occurred in 19% to 35% of deaths in the other units. The proportion of DR deaths in Milwaukee, Montreal, and Groningen was 16% to 22%. No DR deaths occurred in Chicago.
Conclusions: Death in the NICU occurred differently within and between countries. Distinctive end-of-life decisions can be categorized separately by using a model with uniform definitions of withholding/withdrawing mechanical ventilation correlated with the patient's physiological condition. Cross-cultural comparison of end-of-life practice is feasible and important when comparing NICU outcomes.