A post-mortem population survey on foetal-infantile end-of-life decisions: a research protocol.
The death of a child before or shortly after birth is frequently preceded by an end-of-life decision (ELD). Population-based studies of incidence and characteristics of ELDs in neonates and infants are rare, and those in the foetal-infantile period (> 22 weeks of gestation - 1 year) including both neonates and stillborns, are non-existent. However, important information is missed when decisions made before birth are overlooked. Our study protocol addresses this knowledge gap.
First, a new and encompassing framework was constructed to conceptualise ELDs in the foetal-infantile period. Next, a population mortality follow-back survey in Flanders (Belgium) was set up with physicians who certified all death certificates of stillbirths from 22 weeks of gestation onwards, and infants under the age of a year. Two largely similar questionnaires (stillbirths and neonates) were developed, pilot tested and validated, both including questions on ELDs and their preceding decision-making processes. Each death requires a postal questionnaire to be sent to the certifying physician. Anonymity of the child, parents and physician is ensured by a rigorous mailing procedure involving a lawyer as intermediary between death certificate authorities, physicians and researchers. Approval by medical societies, ethics and privacy commissions has been obtained.
This research protocol is the first to study ELDs over the entire foetal-infantile period on a population level. Based on representative samples of deaths and stillbirths and applying a trustworthy anonymity procedure, the research protocol can be used in other countries, irrespective of legal frameworks around perinatal end-of-life decision-making.