Professional societies, ethics institutes, and the courts have recommended principles to guide the care of children with life-threatening conditions; however, little is known about the degree to which pediatric care providers are aware of or in agreement with these guidelines. The study's objectives were to determine the extent to which physicians and nurses in critical care, hematology/oncology, and other subspecialties are in agreement with one another and with widely published ethical recommendations regarding the withholding and withdrawing of life support, the provision of adequate analgesia, and the role of parents in end-of-life decision-making.
Three children's hospitals and 4 general hospitals with PICUs in eastern, southwestern, and southern parts of the United States were surveyed. This population-based sample was composed of attending physicians, house officers, and nurses who cared for children (age: 1 month to 18 years) with life-threatening conditions in PICUs or in medical, surgical, or hematology/oncology units, floors, or departments. Main outcome measures included concerns of conscience, knowledge and beliefs, awareness of published guidelines, and agreement or disagreement with guidelines.
A total of 781 clinicians were sampled, including 209 attending physicians, 116 house officers, and 456 nurses. The overall response rate was 64%. Fifty-four percent of house officers and substantial proportions of attending physicians and nurses reported, "At times, I have acted against my conscience in providing treatment to children in my care." For example, 38% of critical care attending physicians and 25% of hematology/oncology attending physicians expressed these concerns, whereas 48% of critical care nurses and 38% of hematology/oncology nurses did so. Across specialties, approximately 20 times as many nurses, 15 times as many house officers, and 10 times as many attending physicians agreed with the statement, "Sometimes I feel we are saving children who should not be saved," as agreed with the statement, "Sometimes I feel we give up on children too soon." However, hematology/oncology attending physicians (31%) were less likely than critical care (56%) and other subspecialty (66%) attending physicians to report, "Sometimes I feel the treatments I offer children are overly burdensome." Many respondents held views that diverged widely from published recommendations. Despite a lack of awareness of key guidelines, across subspecialties the vast majority of attending physicians (range: 92-98%, depending on specialty) and nurses (range: 83-85%) rated themselves as somewhat to very knowledgeable regarding ethical issues.
There is a need for more hospital-based ethics education and more interdisciplinary and cross-subspecialty discussion of inherently complex and stressful pediatric end-of-life cases. Education should focus on establishing appropriate goals of care, as well as on pain management, medically supplied nutrition and hydration, and the appropriate use of paralytic agents. More research is needed on clinicians' regard for the dead-donor rule.