Families must process complex information related to neonatal encephalopathy and therapeutic hypothermia.
In this mixed methods study, semi-structured interviews were performed with parents whose infants were enrolled in an existing longitudinal cohort study of therapeutic hypothermia between 2011 and 2014.
Thematic saturation was achieved after 20 interviews. Parental experience of communicating with clinicians was characterized by 3 principle themes. Theme 1 highlighted that a fragmented communication process mirrored the chaotic maternal and neonatal course. Parents often received key information about neonatal encephalopathy and therapeutic hypothermia from maternal clinicians. Infant medical information was often given to 1 family member (60%), who felt burdened by the responsibility to relay that information to others. Families universally valued the role of the bedside nurse, who was perceived as the primary source of communication for most (75%) families. Theme 2 encompassed the challenges of discussing the complex therapy of therapeutic hypothermia: families appreciated clinicians who used lay language and provided written material, and they often felt overwhelmed by technical information that made it hard to understand the “big picture” of their infant’s medical course. Theme 3 involved the uncertain prognosis after neonatal encephalopathy. Parents appreciated specific expectations about their infant’s long-term development, and experienced long-term distress about prognostic uncertainty.
Communicating complex and large volumes of information in the midst of perinatal crisis presents inherent challenges for both clinicians and families. We identified an actionable set of communication challenges that can be addressed with targeted interventions.