The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is a high-stress environment for both families and health care providers that can sometimes make appropriate medical decisions challenging. We present a review article of non-medical barriers to effective decision making in the NICU, including: miscommunication, mixed messages, denial, comparative social and cultural influences, and the possible influence of perceived legal issues and family reliance on information from the Internet. As examples of these barriers, we describe and discuss two cases that occurred simultaneously in the same NICU where decisions were influenced by social and cultural differences that were misunderstood by both medical staff and patients' families. The resulting stress and emotional discomfort created an environment with sub-optimal relationships between patients' families and health care providers. We provide background on the sources of conflict in these particular cases. We also offer suggestions for possible amelioration of similar conflicts with the twin goals of facilitating compassionate decision making in NICU settings and promoting enhanced well-being of both families and providers.
Keywords: African Americans; Ethics; consanguinity; decision making; institutional; medical; nursing; prenatal diagnosis.