Clinicians can improve communications with parents during neonatal end-of-life situations by adopting key behaviors such as sitting down to talk to parents and using the infant’s name, according to data from a simulation study.

“Empirical evidence regarding communication with parents during and after a child’s critical instability or death is scarce,” wrote Marie-Hélène Lizotte, MD, of Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Sainte-Justine, Montréal, and colleagues. Noting that realistic simulation has been shown to help clinicians improve their communication skills, the investigators recruited clinicians to participate in a simulated unsuccessful neonatal resuscitation to identify behaviors associated with optimal parent communication.

Behaviors associated with high scores for clinicians deemed “good communicators” included introducing themselves to parents, using the infant’s name (if known), sitting down to speak to parents, not leaving the infant alone on the bed after death, and allowing time for silence, the researchers reported in Pediatrics.

The investigators presented the video simulations to evaluators, including clinicians and bereaved parents. In the simulation, a term infant was born after an emergency cesarean delivery for fetal distress and died after an unsuccessful attempt at resuscitation. A manikin infant was programmed to remain pulseless, and two actors played the roles of the parents in the video.

Evaluators scored the videos for overall performance and for communication with the parent actors during and after the resuscitation.

Overall, parent evaluators and parent actors agreed with clinicians on what actions exemplified optimal communication in about 81% of evaluations. Discrepancies were mainly related to the language participants used related to death, as some parent evaluators said they had trouble understanding certain sentences or found them insensitive, such as “her heart never came back” and “allowing natural death.”

A total of 31 participants were recruited for the simulation, including 15 pediatric residents, 5 neonatal fellows, 3 neonatologists, 3 neonatal nurse practitioners, and 5 transport and resuscitation team providers. Videos of the simulations were examined by 21 evaluators, including bereaved parents, the parent actors, a neonatologist, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, a psychologist, and a respiratory therapist. There were 651 evaluations.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the use of a single center, use of videos for evaluations, and the use of a single infant-resuscitation scenario, the researchers noted. The results were strengthened, however, by the large number of evaluations, and they support the core behaviors as “a skeleton on which to build additional skills with practice and training” with attention to cultural differences in their application, such as recognizing that infants are not named until after birth in some cultures, they said.

The existing literature on strategies for providing empathy and support to parents facing the death of a child is limited, but this simulation study provides a design model to help address this issue, Chris Feudtner, MD, of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia wrote in an accompanying editorial. “Overall, this study, in terms of design and methodologic rigor, is a great advance toward answering our key question: how to best support parents in such circumstances,” he said.

Dr. Feudtner said that he would divide the clinician behaviors into two groups. The first, “Calm kind politeness,” includes acknowledging the parents, introducing themselves, using the infant’s name, and remaining calm. The second set of behaviors, which he called “Skillful situational leadership,” includes preparing parents for the resuscitation activities and providing verbal milestones that prepared them for the fatal outcome.

“Picking up on a metaphor offered by the authors of the study, training and repetitive drills on these specific behaviors cannot be emphasized enough because they are not only the skeleton of excellent communication; they are likely also the muscles, the heart, and even the soul,” he concluded.

The study was supported by a grant from the Fonds de Recherche en Santé du Québec and the Medical Education Grant from Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Sainte-Justine. The researchers and Dr. Feudtner reported no financial conflicts.

SOURCE: Lizotte M-H et al. Pediatrics. 2020 Jan 27. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-1925; Feudtner C. Pediatrics. 2020 Jan 27. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-3116.