There is a concern that as a result of COVID-19 there will be a shortage of ventilators for patients requiring respiratory support. This concern has resulted in significant debate about whether it is appropriate to withdraw ventilation from one patient in order to provide it to another patient who may benefit more. The current advice available to doctors appears to be inconsistent, with some suggesting withdrawal of treatment is more serious than withholding, while others suggest that this distinction should not be made. We argue that there is no ethically relevant difference between withdrawing and withholding treatment and that suggesting otherwise may have problematic consequences. If doctors are discouraged from withdrawing treatment, concern about a future shortage may make them reluctant to provide ventilation to patients who are unlikely to have a successful outcome. This may result in underutilisation of available resources. A national policy is urgently required to provide doctors with guidance about how patients should be prioritised to ensure the maximum benefit is derived from limited resources.
BACKGROUND: Decisions about withdrawal of life support for infants have given rise to legal battles between physicians and parents creating intense media attention. It is unclear how we should evaluate when life is no longer worth living for an infant. Public attitudes towards treatment withdrawal and the role of parents in situations of disagreement have not previously been assessed.
METHODS: An online survey was conducted with a sample of the UK public to assess public views about the benefit of life in hypothetical cases similar to real cases heard by the UK courts (eg, Charlie Gard, Alfie Evans). We then evaluated these public views in comparison with existing ethical frameworks for decision-making.
RESULTS: One hundred and thirty participants completed the survey. The majority (94%) agreed that an infant's life may have no benefit when well-being falls below a critical level. Decisions to withdraw treatment were positively associated with the importance of use of medical resources, the infant's ability to have emotional relationships, and mental abilities. Up to 50% of participants in each case believed it was permissible to either continue or withdraw treatment.
CONCLUSION: Despite the controversy, our findings indicate that in the most severe cases, most people agree that life is not worth living for a profoundly disabled infant. Our survey found wide acceptance of at least the permissibility of withdrawal of treatment across a range of cases, though also a reluctance to overrule parents' decisions. These findings may be useful when constructing guidelines for clinical practice.
Newborn infants are among those most severely affected by humanitarian crises. Aid organisations increasingly recognise the necessity to provide for the medical needs of newborns, however, this may generate distinctive ethical questions for those providing humanitarian medical care. Medical ethical approaches to neonatal care familiar in other settings may not be appropriate given the diversity and volatility of humanitarian disasters, and the extreme resource limitations commonly faced by humanitarian aid missions. In this paper, we first systematically review existing guidelines relating to the treatment and resuscitation of newborns in humanitarian crises, finding little substantive ethical guidance for those providing humanitarian healthcare. We next draw on paradigm cases and published literature to identify and describe some of the major ethical questions common to these settings. We divide these questions into quality of life considerations, allocation of limited resources, and conflicting cultural norms and values. We finally suggest some preliminary recommendations to guide ethical decision-making around resuscitation of newborns and withdrawal of treatment in humanitarian settings.
BACKGROUND: It is widely acceptable to involve parents in decision-making about the resuscitation of extremely preterm infants (EPIs) in the gray zone. However, there are different views about where the boundaries of the gray zone should lie. Our aim in this study was to compare the resuscitation thresholds for EPIs between neonatologists in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the Netherlands.
METHODS: We distributed an online survey to consultant neonatologists and neonatal registrars and fellows that included clinical scenarios in which parents requested resuscitation or nonresuscitation. Respondents were asked about the lowest gestational age and/or the worst prognosis at which they would provide resuscitation and the highest gestational age and/or the best prognosis at which they would withhold resuscitation. In additional scenarios, influence of the condition at birth or consideration of available health care resources was assessed.
RESULTS: The survey was completed by 162 neonatologists (30% response rate). There was a significant difference between countries; the gray zone for most UK respondents was 23 + 0/7 to 23 + 6/7 or 24 weeks' gestation, compared with 22 + 0/7 to 22 + 6/7 or 23 weeks' gestation in Sweden and 24 + 0/7 to 25 + 6/7 or 26 weeks' gestation in the Netherlands. Resuscitation thresholds were higher if an infant was born in poor condition. There was wide variation in the prognosis that warranted resuscitation or nonresuscitation. Consideration of resource scarcity did not alter responses.
CONCLUSIONS: In this survey, we found significant differences in approach to the resuscitation of EPIs, with a spectrum from most proactive (Sweden) to least proactive (Netherlands). Most survey respondents indicated shifts in decision-making that were associated with particular weeks' gestation. Despite the different approaches to decision-making in the 3 countries, there was relatively little difference between countries in neonatologists' prognostic thresholds for resuscitation.
In intensive care, disputes sometimes arise when patients or surrogates strongly desire treatment, yet health professionals regard it as potentially inappropriate. While professional guidelines confirm that physicians are not always obliged to provide requested treatment, determining when treatment would be inappropriate is extremely challenging. One potential reason for refusing to provide a desired and potentially beneficial treatment is because (within the setting of limited resources) this would harm other patients. Elsewhere in public health systems, cost effectiveness analysis is sometimes used to decide between different priorities for funding. In this paper, we explore whether cost-effectiveness could be used to determine the appropriateness of providing intensive care. We explore a set of treatment thresholds: the probability threshold (a minimum probability of survival for providing treatment), the cost threshold (a maximum cost of treatment), the duration threshold (the maximum duration of intensive care), and the quality threshold (a minimum quality of life). One common objection to cost-effectiveness analysis is that it might lead to rationing of life-saving treatment. The analysis in this paper might be used to inform debate about the implications of applying cost-effectiveness thresholds to clinical decisions around potentially inappropriate treatment.