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Kaemingk BD, Carroll K, Thorvilson MJ, Schaepe KS, Collura CA. Uncertainty at the Limits of Viability: A Qualitative Study of Antenatal Consultations. Pediatrics. 2021 Mar 3:e20201865. doi: 10.1542/peds.2020-1865. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33658319.

Background and objectives: Antenatal consultation between a neonatologist and expectant parent(s) may determine if resuscitation is provided for or withheld from neonates born in the gray zone of viability. In this study, we sought to gain a deeper understanding of uncertainties present and neonatologists’ communication strategies regarding such uncertainties in this shared decision-making.

Methods: A prospective, qualitative study using transcriptions of audio-recorded antenatal consultations between a neonatologist and expectant parent(s) was conducted. Pregnant women were eligible if anticipating delivery in the gray zone of viability (22 0/7-24 6/7 weeks’ gestation). Over 18 months, 25 of 28 pregnant women approached consented to participate. Applied thematic analysis was used to inductively derive and examine conceptual themes.

Results: Inductive analysis of consult transcripts revealed uncertainty as a central theme. Several subthemes relating to uncertainty were also derived, including the timing of delivery, NICU course, individual characteristics (of physician, expectant parent(s), and fetus or neonate), and consequences of the decision for the expectant parent(s). Analysis revealed that uncertainty was actively managed by neonatologists through a variety of strategies, including providing more information, acknowledging the limits of medicine, acknowledging and accepting uncertainty, holding hope, and relationship building.

Conclusions: Uncertainty is pervasive within the antenatal consultation for periviable neonates and likely plays a significant role in decision-making toward postnatal resuscitative efforts. Uncertainty complicated, or even paralyzed, decision-making efforts while also providing reassurance toward a positive outcome. Directions for future study should consider whether advanced communication training modulates the impact that uncertainty plays in the shared decision-making encounter.

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