A tiny fraction of babies born at 22 weeks of gestation survive to childhood without major impairments or disabilities, according to a study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine. But, although some of these babies can do well, there is variation between hospitals in the rate at which they are resuscitated after birth.
As was widely reported late last week, the results add to the existing debate about providing the earliest-born preemies with intensive medical care. I talked with Henry Lee, MD, a neonatologist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, to get his take on the new findings. Doctors who work with tiny preemies and their families aren't surprised by the study's results, Lee told me, since the generally poor outcomes for 22-week babies are consistent with other studies. But they are carefully considering what to do next.
"We already knew, to a large extent, that there is variation in how different practitioners and hospitals manage patients in this peri-viable range," Lee said. "Some hospitals tend to be more aggressive at resuscitating and actively treating these babies, others less so."
The study's findings highlight that doctors may have difficulty letting parents make the choice about how to handle the birth of a very early preemie, Lee noted. "We're supposed to be communicating with parents, and they're supposed to be making an informed decision," he said. The variation between hospitals suggests that's not what is actually happening; if parents were deciding what to do, the rate of resuscitation would be more consistent across hospitals. "This data is telling us that we as medical professionals are making the decision for parents, especially at really young gestational ages," Lee said. "It's an area that we need to continue to learn to deal with better." Hospitals also vary in their capacity to care for such babies, he added.
Physicians from several Bay Area hospitals have already begun meeting to discuss their approaches to the earliest-born preemies, he told me. "We might not practice exactly the same, but we want to understand the rationale for what everyone is doing," Lee said. "If one group is doing something that makes sense, we could learn from them."
And the study also brings into focus the difficulty of balancing statistics against an individual family's situation, Lee added. "These larger population studies help us to counsel families, but one thing I always have to say to them is that there's uncertainty," he said. "I tell parents that we don't know what is going to happen to their baby - ultimately their baby is an individual and we don't know yet. There is that very huge uncertainty."
Previously: Counseling parents of the earliest-born preemies: A mom and two physicians talk about the challenges, Stanford-led study suggests changes to brain scanning guidelines for preemies and Talk to her (or him): Study shows adult talk to preemies aids development
Photo by Sarah Hopkins