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End-of-life decisions in neonatal care: a conversation analytical study


Objective To understand the dynamics of conversations between neonatologists and parents concerning limitation of life-sustaining treatments.

Design Formal conversations were recorded, transcribed and analysed according to the conventions and methods of conversation analysis.

Setting Two tertiary neonatal intensive care units.

Participants Consultant neonatal specialists and families.

Main outcome measures We used conversation analysis and developed an inductive coding scheme for conversations based on the introduction of limiting life-sustaining treatments and on the parental responses.

Results From recordings with 51 families, we identified 27 conversations about limiting life support with 20 families and 14 doctors. Neonatologists adopted three broad strategies: (1) ‘recommendations’, in which one course of action is presented and explicitly endorsed as the best course of action, (2) a ‘single-option choice’ format (conditional: referring to a choice that should be made, but without specifying or listing options), and (3) options (where the doctor explicitly refers to or lists options). Our conversation analysis-informed coding scheme was based on the opportunities available for parents to ask questions and assert their preference with minimal interactional constraint or pressure for a certain type of response. Response scores for parents presented with conditional formats (n=15, median 5.0) and options (n=10, median 5.0) were significantly higher than for those parents presented with ‘recommendations’ (n=16, median 3.75; p=0.002) and parents were more likely to express preferences (p=0.005).

Conclusion Encouraging different approaches to conversations about limitation of life-supporting treatment may lead to better parent engagement and less misalignment between the conversational partners.

  • neonatology
  • palliative care
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