The journey from conception to the labour floor and then for some to the NICU is not a straight one. There are times of joy, interspersed with sadness, denial, anger and eventually acceptance, as initial news of being pregnant leads to complications in pregnancy and then eventual admission of an infant to the NICU.
Much has been said in recent years about the building of partnerships with parents and in fact there is a new catchphrase attached to the concept “shared decision making” (SDM). There is no question that in the perfect world this is exactly the relationship that we should be striving for with all of our patients. The world however is not perfect and although this may not be the most popular opinion I have given, I question how applicable this really is in many situations.
A Reality Check
Take for instance the parents who present to the labour floor of their local hospital in advanced labour at 24 weeks. Proponents of this SDM model would suggest that a meeting take place and pertinent information be given to a family and together with the assistance of literature applicable to their situation (possibly a pamphlet) the health care providers and families come to a mutually agreeable decision as to what the best course of action is for them and their unborn infant. This all sounds wonderful but examining the real life situation a little more closely is it actually reasonable to assume we can obtain this? I have not been, nor will I ever be pregnant and certainly have never experienced contractions and felt the veil clouding my vision as the first dose of analgesia enters my veins to deal with the discomfort a woman experiences during labour. Not to mention there are people admitting this couple, taking histories, establishing IV access, scanning bellies and a whole host of other pokes and prods along the way.
My Role Better Defined
Then I come in. Among all this chaos I deliver the information, pass along a pamphlet and do the best job I can to inform said couple of the upcoming decision. The trouble of course is how do we come to this mutual decision in the 15 – 30 minutes I spend with them during this crisis? The answer sadly is we do our best but don’t for a minute think that SDM has occurred. I don’t believe this is possible unless the family has prior experience with a preterm birth or perhaps is a HCP working with newborns or children with disabilities themselves. In fact Boss RD et al in their own research on the subject identified that in hindsight religion, spirituality and hope are what motivated parents rather than what was said at the time. In essence their minds are already made up. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for the SDM but at least in my opinion, unless their contractions settle, a calmness ensues, they have time to digest the information being given and then meet again under less stressful circumstances, the SDM is a nice idea but for many not a reality.
Shifting To The NICU
I recall a significant moment in my training when I saw how the SDM model can actually cause more grief than help. Dr. Keith Barrington a fellow blogger (if you haven’t discovered him, his work is fascinating over at Neonatal Research) published one of the most impactful pieces of research of the decade during my fellowship. The adverse neuro-developmental effects of postnatal steroids in the preterm infant: a systematic review of RCTs. Following this analysis there was a near moratorium on the use of post natal steroids. The issue this created was that to now receive them you had to be close to the end of the limits of care. At this point you either died (thereby concluding they are of no help) or you survived with disability that was due in part no doubt to how sick you had become (thereby concluding they are dangerous).
The moment I am referring to was a conversation with a family in which the attending managing the unit presented the risks and benefits of postnatal steroids to the family when the FiO2 was at 40% one day. The language used was non directive and the parents asked for another day to decide. The next day and each of the following two days they were unable to choose between giving the steroids and the perceived risk of brain damage versus not and watching the FiO2 climb by about 10% per day. By the time the FiO2 several days later was at 80-90% they were distraught, teary and feeling helpless. What they needed was direction; someone to give them some advice or more simply an educated opinion.
We can strive to share in the decision making but I continue to believe there is a time and place to help our families by taking a stance or side. We can equip them with as much information as we want but is there really any replacement for actually taking care of these infants, experiencing the ups and downs and hearing how they have done in follow-up? We simply can’t expect the average parent to understand the true long term consequences of their decisions. I am not saying we go back to a paternalistic time in medicine but I am saying that one size does not fit all.
We owe it to our families to pursue SDM when we can but we have an equal obligation to recognize when this ideal state is simply not possible. At this point we have to use the experiences and knowledge we have to provide them with the best advice we can. We have gone through medical training, and gone down these paths so many times. We can avoid biased opinion and rely on the facts as they are in our institutions but to not take a stand when it is needed at least for me is doing a disservice to those we are so eager to help.
If you are reading this and have a baby in the NICU with respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) otherwise known as hyaline membrane disease you might be surprised to know that it is because of the same condition that modern NICUs exist. The newspaper clipping from above sparked a multibillion dollar expansion of research to find a cure for the condition that took the life of President Kennedy’s preterm infant Patrick Bouvier Kennedy. He died of complications of RDS as there was nothing other than oxygen to treat him with. After his death the President committeed dollars to research to find a treatment and from that came surfactant and modern ventilators to support these little ones.
What is surfactant and what is it’s relationship to RDS?
When you take a breath (all of us including you reading this) oxygen travels down your windpipe (trachea) down into your lung and goes left and right down what are called your mainstem bronchi and then travels to the deep parts of the lung eventually finding its way to your tiny air sacs called alveoli (there are millions of them). Each alveolus has a substance in it called surfactant which helps to reduce the surface tension in the sac allowing it to open to receive oxygen and then shrink to get rid of carbon dioxide that the blood stream brings to these sacs to eliminate. Preterm infants don’t have enough surfactant and therefore the tension is high and the sacs are hard to open and easily collapse. Think of surface tension like blowing up those latex balloons as a child. Very hard to get them started but once those little balloons open a little it is much easier! The x-ray above shows you what the lungs of a newborn with RDS look like. They are described as having a “ground glass” appearance which if you recall is the white glass that you write on using a grease pencil when you are using a microscope slide. Remember that?
Before your infant was born you may have received two needles in your buttocks. These needles contain steroid that helps your unborn baby make surfactant so that when they are born they have a better chance of breathing on their own.
Things we can do after birth
Even with steroids the lungs may be “sticky” after birth and difficult to open. The way this will look to you is that when your baby takes a breath since it is so difficult the skin in between the ribs may seem to suck in. That is because the lungs are working so hard to take breath in that the negative pressure is seen on the chest. If your baby is doing that we can start them on something called CPAP which is a machine that uses a mask covering the nose and blows air into the chest. This air is under pressure and helps get oxygen into the lungs and gives them the assist they need to overcome the resistance to opening.
Some babies need more than this though and will need surfactant put into the lungs. The way this is done is typically by one of two ways. One option is to put a plastic tube in between the vocal cords and then squirt in surfactant (we get it from cow’s or pigs) and then typically the tube is withdrawn (you may hear people call it the INSURE technique – INtubate, SURfactant, Extubate). For some babies who still need oxygen after the tube is put in they may need to remain on the ventilator to help them breathe for awhile. The other technique is the LISA (Less Invasive Surfactant Administration). This is a newer way of giving surfactant and typically involves putting a baby on CPAP and then looking at the vocal cords and putting a thin catheter in between them. Surfactant is then squirted into the trachea and the catheter taken out. The difference between the two methods is that in the LISA method your baby is breathing on their own throughout the procedure while receiving CPAP.
Even if no surfactant is given the good news is that while RDS typically worsens over the first 2-3 days, by day 3-4 your baby will start to make their own surfactant. When that happens they will start to feel better and breathe easier. Come to think of it you will too.
Recent statements by the American Academy of Pediatric’s, NICHD, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM), and recommend selective approaches to mothers presenting between 22 0/7 to 22 6/7 weeks. The decision to provide antenatal steroids is only recommended if delivery is expected after 23 weeks. Furthermore the decision to resuscitate is based on an examination of a number of factors including a shared decision with the family. In practice this leads to those centres believing this is mostly futile generally not resuscitating or offering steroids while other more optimistic hospitals having higher rates of proactive (steroids and resuscitation) rates. Then there are other centres where the standard approach is proactive such as one in Uppsala, Sweden where this approach is used almost exclusively.
What would happen then if one compared the outcome for infants born at 22 weeks between this hospital and another where a selective approach is generally offered. In this case you would have a lot of experience with resuscitating infants at 22 weeks and the other a fraction of all presenting as a few to many would receive compassionate care. This is exactly what has now happened.
The authors examined a period from 2006-2015, dividing this time into two epochs with the first being 2006-2010 to account for differing practices and resources over time. Given that Uppsala took a proactive approach to all of their 40 live born infants during this time, it provided an opportunity to look at the 72 infants who were live born in the Ohio and examine their differences. In Ohio the approach was as follows; 16 (22%) received proactive care, 18 (25%) received inconsistent care (steroids but no resuscitation), and 38 (53%) received comfort care. In other words, although the total number of infants live born in Ohio was almost double that of Uppsala, only 16 were proactively treated in Ohio compared to all 40 in Uppsala.
The differences in outcome are striking
Survival in delivery room: (38/40, 95% vs 12/16, 75%; P = 0.049)
Provision of delivery room surfactant: (40/40, 100% vs 9/16, 56%; P<0.01)
Survival at 24 h (37/40, 93% vs. 9/16, 56%; P < 0.01).
Survival to 1 year (21/40, 53% vs. 3/16, 19%; P < 0.05).
Among the infants treated proactively, median age of death (17 postnatal days at range 0 h–226 days vs. 3 postnatal hours at NCH, range 0 h–10 days; P < 0.01).
All surviving infants had BPD All infants surviving to initial hospital discharge were alive at 18 months’ postnatal age.
With respect to long term outcome the authors note:
“Outpatient follow-up (qualitative or non-qualitative neurodevelopmental testing) was available in 26 out of 27 infants (96%) Eleven of the 26 (42%) were unimpaired, and all unimpaired infants were in the UUCH cohort. Among the 15 infants with impairment at UUCH, 3 had mild impairment and 12 had moderate or severe impairment. All surviving infants at NCH had moderate or severe impairment.”
A word about antenatal steroids as well. In Uppsala 85% of mothers received 2 doses of antenatal steroids vs 25% in Ohio. People sometimes question whether ANS at this age are effective. It is interesting to note that 44% of babies in the Ohio group vs 3% p<0.01 received chest compressions +/- epinephrine in the delivery room. Might this explain the better state of some of these infants at birth?
The Power of Belief
When I do rounds I often remark that try as we might we can’t will babies to do better. I also commonly say however that we need to be optimistic and although I am accused of seeing the world through rose coloured glasses I think there is an important lesson to be learned from this study. This comparison is really a contrast between a system that believes they can do a good thing for these families by actively promoting a proactive approach vs a system in which I imagine a reluctant approach exists even for those infants where a proactive plan is enacted. One sign of this might be that in Sweden 100% of these deliveries had a Neonatologist present vs 75% in the US. It could be due to other factors such as ability of the Neo to get in within time of the delivery however rather than a sign they didn’t feel they were needed due to futility.
There is evidence as well that the aggressiveness of the proactive approach also differs between the two sites based on a couple observations. The first is the rate of surfactant provision in the delivery room which was 100% in Sweden but only 56% in the US. The other thing of note is the time of death for those who did not survive. The median time of death in the US was 3 hours vs 17 days in Uppsala. What does this tell us about the approaches? I would imagine (although the numbers are small) that the teams in the US were much more likely to lose hope (or faith) and withdraw early while the other centre possibility motivated by their past successes pushed forward.
Remarkably, although one might think that the teams in Uppsala were simply creating significantly impaired survivors, 42% of the survivors were unimpaired from a developmental standpoint in follow-up. All surviving infants though from Ohio had moderate to severe impairment.
What this story may also really be about is practice. The reality is that the team in Sweden had over twice the exposure to such infants over time. Although the number presenting at this GA was higher, the ones that actually were resuscitated and given steroids was less than half. One cannot take away though that Uppsala in the end demonstrated that a proactive approach is definitely not futile. Not only can these children survive but almost half will be developmentally intact.
We must acknowledge as well though that since this is a retrospective study there may be factors that may have affected the results. As the saying goes “Individual results may vary”. Are the teams the same in both centres in terms of number of Neonatologists? Are there more residents caring for these infants vs fellows? Are the resources the same? What about proximity of the Neonatologist to the hospital? There are other factors such as cohesiveness of the team and communication between team members that may be influencing the results.
In the end though, this is a story of a team that believed it could and did. Perhaps seeing the world through rose coloured glasses is not such a bad thing in the end.
A real change is coming and with this post you will get a glimpse into where the next big thing in Neonatology is likely to be. A catchy title for sure and also an exaggeration as I don’t see us abandoning the endotracheal tube just yet. There has been a lot of talk about less invasive means of giving surfactant and the last few years have seen several papers relating to giving surfactant via a catheter placed in the trachea (MIST or LISA techniques as examples). There may be a new kid on the block so to speak and that is aerosolized surfactant. This has been talked about for some time as well but the challenge had been figuring out how to aerosolize the fluid in such a way that a significant amount of the surfactant would actually enter the trachea. This was really a dream of many Neonatologists and based on a recently published paper the time may be now for this technique to take off.
A Randomized Trial of Aerosolized Surfacant
Minocchieri et al as part of the CureNeb study team published Nebulised surfactant to reduce severity of respiratory distress: a blinded, parallel, randomised controlled trial. This trial set out to obtain a sample size of 70 patients between 29 0/7 to 33 6/7 weeks to demonstrate a difference in need for intubation from 30% down to 5% in patients treated with CPAP (30% was based on the historical average). The authors recognizing that the babies in this GA bracket might behave differently, further stratified the randomization into two groups being 29 0/7 – 31 6/7 weeks and 32 0/7 to 33 6/7 weeks. Those babies who were on CPAP and met the following criteria for intubation were either intubated in the control group and given surfactant (curosurf) using the same protocol as those nebulized or had surfactant delivered via nebulisation (200 mg/kg: poractant alfa) using a customised vibrating membrane nebuliser (eFlow neonatal). Surfactant nebulisation(100 mg/kg) was repeated after 12 hours if oxygen was still required. The primary dichotomous outcome was the need for intubation within 72 hours of life, and the primary continuous outcome was the mean duration of mechanical ventilation at 72 hours of age.
Criteria for intubation
1. FiO2 >0.35 over more than 30 min OR FiO2 >0.45 at
2. More than four apnea/hour OR two apnea requiring BVM
3. Two cap gases with pH <7.2 and PaCO2 >65 mm Hg (or) >60 mm Hg if arterial blood gas sample).
4. Intubation deemed necessary by the attending physician.
Did It Work?
Eureka! It seemed to work as 11 of 32 infants were intubated in the surfactant nebulisation group within 72 hours of birth vs.22 out of 32 infants receiving CPAP alone (RR (95% CI)=0.526 (0.292 to 0.950)). The reduction though was accounted for by the bigger babies in the 32 0/7 to 33 6/7 weeks group as only 1 of 11 was intubated when given nebulized surfactant compared to 10 of 13 managed with CPAP. The duration of ventilation in the first 72 hours was not different between the groups: the median (range) 0 (0–62) hour for the nebulization group and 9 (0–64) hours for the control group (p=0.220). It is important in seeing these results that the clinicians deciding whether infants should be intubated for surfactant administration were blind to the arm the infants were in. All administration of curosurf via nebulization or sham procedures were done behind a screen.
The total number of infants randomized were 66 so they did fall shy of the necessary recruitment but since they did find a difference the results seem valid. Importantly, there were no differences in complications although I can’t be totally confident there really is no risk as this study was grossly underpowered to look at rarer outcomes.
Breaking down the results
This study has me excited as what it shows is that “it kind of works“. Why would larger babies be the ones to benefit the most? My guess is that some but not a lot of surfactant administered via nebulization reaches the alveoli. Infants with lesser degrees of surfactant deficiency (32 0/7 to 33 6/7) weeks might get just enough to manage without an endotracheal tube. Those infants (in particular less than 32 0/7 weeks) who have more significant surfactant deficiency don’t get enough and therefore are intubated. Supporting this notion is the overall delay in time to intubation in those who were intubated despite nebulization (11.6 hours in the nebulization group vs 4.9 hours in the control arm). They likely received some deposition in the distal alveoli but not enough to completely stave off an endotracheal tube.
One concerning point from the study though had to do with the group of infants who were intubated despite nebulization of surfactant. When you look at total duration of ventilation (hours) it was 14.6 (9.0–24.8) in the control arm vs 25.4 (14.6–42.2) p= 0.029*. In other words infants who were intubated in the end spent about twice as long intubated as those who were intubated straight away. Not a huge concern if you are born at 32 weeks or more but those additional thousands of positive pressure breaths are more worrisome as a risk for CLD down the road.
As it stands, if you had an infant who was 33 weeks and grunting with an FiO2 of 35% might you try this if you could get your hands on the nebulizer? It appears to work so the only question is whether you are confident enough that the risk of such things as pneumothorax or IVH isn’t higher if intubation is delayed. It will be interesting to see if this gets adopted at this point.
The future no doubt will see a refinement of the nebulizer and an attempt to see how well this technique works in infants below 29 weeks. It is in this group though that prolonging time intubated would be more worrisome. I don’t want to dismiss this outright as I see this as a pilot study that will lead the way for future work that will refine this technique. If we get this right this would be really transformative to Neonatology and just might be the next big leap.
Much has been written about methylxanthines over the years with the main questions initially being, “should we use them?”, “how big a dose should we use” and of course “theophylline vs caffeine”. At least in our units and in most others I know of caffeine seems to reign supreme and while there remains some discussion about whether dosing for maintenance of 2.5 -5 mg/kg/d of caffeine base or 5 – 10 mg/kg/d is the right way to go I think most favour the lower dose. We also know from the CAP study that not only does caffeine work to treat apnea of prematurity but it also appears to reduce the risk of BPD, PDA and duration of oxygen therapy to name a few benefits. Although initially promising as providing a benefit by improving neurodevelopmental outcomes in those who received it, by 5 and 11 years these benefits seem to disappear with only mild motor differences being seen.
Turning to a new question
The new query though is how long to treat? Many units will typically stop caffeine somewhere between 33-35 weeks PMA on the grounds that most babies by then should have outgrown their irregular respiration patterns and have enough pulmonary reserve to withstand a little periodic breathing. Certainly there are those who prove that they truly still need their caffeine and on occasion I have sent some babies home with caffeine when they are fully fed and otherwise able to go home but just can’t seem to stabilize their breathing enough to be off a monitor without caffeine. Then there is also more recent data suggesting that due to intermittent hypoxic episodes in the smallest of infants at term equivalent age, a longer duration of therapy might be advisable for these ELBWs. What really hasn’t been looked at well though is what duration of caffeine might be associated with the best neurodevelopmental outcomes. While I would love to see a prospective study to tackle this question for now we will have to do with one that while retrospective does an admirable job of searching for an answer.
The Calgary Neonatal Group May Have The Answer
Lodha A et al recently published the paper Does duration of caffeine therapy in preterm infants born ≤1250 g at birth influence neurodevelopmental (ND) outcomes at 3 years of
age? This retrospective study looked at infants under 1250g at birth who were treated within one week of age with caffeine and divided them into three categories based on duration of caffeine therapy. The groups were as follows, early cessation of caffeine ≤ 14 days (ECC), intermediate cessation of caffeine 15–30 days (ICC), and late cessation of
caffeine >30 days (LCC). In total there were 508 eligible infants with 448 (88%) seen at 3 years CA at follow-up. ECC (n = 139), ICC (n = 122) and LCC (n = 187). The primary outcome here was ND at 3 years of age while a host of secondary outcomes were also examined such as RDS, PDA, BPD, ROP as typical morbidities. It made sense to look at these since provision of caffeine had previously been shown to modify such outcomes.
Did they find a benefit?
Sadly there did not appear to be any benefit regardless of which group infants fell in with respect to duration of caffeine when it came to ND. When looking at secondary outcomes there were a few key differences found which favoured the ICC group. These infants had the lowest days of supplemental oxygen, hospital stay ROP and total days of ventilation. This middle group also had a median GA 1 week older at 27 weeks than the other two groups. The authors however did a logistic regression and ruled out the improvement based on the advanced GA. The group with the lowest use of caffeine had higher number of days on supplemental oxygen and higher days of ventilation on average than the middle but not the high caffeine group. It is tempting to blame the result for the longer caffeine group on these being babies that were just sicker and therefore needed caffeine longer. On the other hand the babies that were treated with caffeine for less than two weeks appear to have likely needed it longer as they needed longer durations of oxygen and were ventilated longer so perhaps were under treated. What is fair to say though is that the short and long groups having longer median days of ventilation were more likey to have morbidities associated with that being worse ROP and need for O2. In short they likely had more lung damage. What is really puzzling to me is that with a median GA of 27-28 weeks some of these kids were off caffeine before 30 weeks PMA and in the middle group for the most part before 32 weeks! If they were in need of O2 and ventilation for at least two weeks maybe they needed more caffeine or perhaps the babies in these groups were just less sick?
What is missing?
There is another potential answer to why the middle group did the best. In the methods section the authors acknowledge that for each infant caffeine was loaded at 10 mg/kg/d. What we don’t know though is what the cumulative dose was for the different groups. The range of dosing was from 2.5-5 mg/kg/d for maintenance. Lets say there was an over representation of babies on 2.5 mg/kg/d in the short and long duration groups compared to the middle group. Could this actually be the reason behind the difference in outcomes? If for example the dosing on average was lower in these two groups might it be that with less respiratory drive the babies in those groups needed faster ventilator rates with longer durations of support leading to more lung damage and with it the rest of the morbidities that followed?
It would be interesting to see such data to determine if the two groups were indeed dosed on average lower by looking at median doses and total cumulative doses including miniloads along the way. We know that duration may need to be prolonged in some patients but we also know that dose matters and without knowing this piece of information it is tough to come to a conclusion about how long exactly to treat.
What this study does though is beg for a prospective study to determine when one should stop caffeine as that answer eludes us!