Background: Advances in neonatal intensive care have lowered the neonatal death rate. There are still some severely ill neonates and infants, however, for whom the application of all possible life-prolonging treatment modalities may be questioned.
Methods: We did two studies in the Netherlands. In the first we sent questionnaires to physicians who had attended 338 consecutive deaths (August-November, 1995) within the first year of life (death-certificate study), and in the second we interviewed 31 neonatologists or paediatric intensive-care specialists and 35 general paediatricians. The response rates were 88% and 99%, respectively.
Findings: In the death-certificate study, 57% of all deaths had been preceded by a decision to forgo life-sustaining treatment; this decision was accompanied by the administration of potentially life-shortening drugs to alleviate pain or other symptoms in 23%, and by the administration of drugs with the explicit aim of hastening death in 8%. A drug was given explicitly to hasten death to neonates not dependent on life-sustaining treatment in 1% of all death cases. No chance of survival was the main motive in 76% of all end-of-life decisions, and a poor prognosis was the main motive in 18%. The interview study showed that parents had been involved in making 79% of decisions. The physicians consulted colleagues about 88% of decisions. Most paediatricians favoured formal review of medical decisions by colleagues together with ethical or legal experts.
Interpretation: Death among neonates and infants is commonly preceded by medical end-of-life decisions. Most Dutch paediatricians seem to find prospects for survival and prognostic factors relevant in such decisions. Public control by a committee of physicians, paediatricians, ethicists, and legal experts is widely endorsed by paediatricians.