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Editor—Drs Baumer, Beresford, Shaw, Manning, and their co-investigators in the two recent studies on mechanical ventilation of the newborn1 ,2 are to be congratulated for their hard work and persistence in performing these difficult clinical trials. In both, the authors conclude that patient triggered ventilation (PTV) provided no added benefit; in Baumer's trial, there was a trend towards more pneumothorax in infants below 28 weeks gestation. Both studies attempted to assess important clinical outcomes, such as the duration of mechanical ventilation, the incidence of chronic lung disease, and potential neurological injury. Their inability to tease out any of the potential benefits of PTV suggested by smaller studies is disappointing. Still, I would suggest that we do not conclude from these works that no benefits are possible, nor that these techniques should be abandoned.
An inescapable limitation of a large randomised trial is characterised by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Like the electron, optimal clinical treatment is a moving target. By its very nature, a study protocol will no longer reflect the clinical arena as well at the study's completion as it did at the outset. In these studies, the authors evaluate PTV as a new and unproven clinical mode. Unfortunately, in neither study were they able to incorporate intermittent or continuous tidal volume measurement during ventilation. Like PTV, volume targeting is a new and relatively untested technique, although there is evidence that it may improve outcomes.3-6 Current neonatal ventilators commonly include tidal volume monitoring as a standard feature; some have the ability to provide volume controlled ventilation during a variety of patient triggered modes. One may speculate that the trend toward increased pneumothorax in the Baumer trial and the similarity in duration of ventilation and intracranial haemorrhage in both trials between the control and PTV groups may in part be due to unmeasured fluctuations in tidal volume during pressure preset mechanical ventilation.
Another major problem faced by clinicians today is the difficulty in performing studies large enough to detect differences in meaningful outcomes. The authors of both current studies comment on their inability to realistically recruit the thousands of patients needed to delineate further differences between these treatments. Thus, at a time when the technology is finally available to measure tiny changes in volume and pressure at the bedside, and to reasonably estimate the impact of these changes on individual pulmonary functions, our clinical outcomes are good enough to make assessment of these new techniques exceedingly difficult. The authors of these studies have done an admirable job. I hope we can avoid the temptation to conclude that the old ways are the best ways, and that the new techniques available for neonatal mechanical ventilation are just “bells and whistles”.