Background.

Previous reports of variations in outcomes among neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) examined only specific subpopulations of interest (eg, very low birth weight [VLBW] infants <1500 g of birth weight [BW]).

Objectives.

We report on current practice and outcomes variations in a population-based national study of Canadian NICUs from January 8, 1996 to October 31, 1997.

Method.

Information on 20 488 admissions to 17 tertiary level NICUs across Canada was prospectively collected by trained abstractors using a standard manual of operations and definitions. Data were verified and analyzed in concert with a steering committee comprising experienced researchers and neonatologists. Patient information included demographic information, antenatal history, mode of delivery, problems at delivery, status of infant and problems at birth, illness severity (Clinical Risk Index for Babies, Score for Neonatal Acute Physiology, Score for Neonatal Acute Physiology-Version II), therapeutic intensity (Neonatal Therapeutic Intensity Scoring System [NTISS]), selected NICU practices and procedures, use of technology and resources, and selected patient outcomes. Patients were tracked until death or discharge home.

Results.

The mean number of annual admissions to an NICU was 657, with 26% outborn infants. Fifty-three percent were <2500 g BW, 20% were <1500 g BW (VLBW), and 65% were preterm (<38 weeks' gestational age [GA]). Only 2% of mothers received no prenatal care. Antenatal steroids were given to 58%, but there was wide variation in use (23%–76%). Congenital anomalies were present in 14%, and 4% were small for GA (less than the third percentile). Admission illness severity was lowest among infants 33 to 37 weeks of GA and correlated with risk of death. Ninety-six percent of patients survived until discharge, but fewer survived at lower GA. No infant <22 weeks' GA survived. Seven percent of infants had at least 1 episode of infection, but 75% received antibiotics in the NICU. Forty-three percent received respiratory support, and 14% received surfactant. Nitric oxide was given to 150 term infants and to 102 preterm infants. Selected outcomes of VLBW infants were: survival rate (87%); chronic lung disease (26%); ≥stage 3 retinopathy of prematurity (ROP; 11%); ≥grade 3 intraventricular hemorrhage (IVH; 10%); nosocomial infection (22%); necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC; 7%). Sixty-nine percent of VLBW infants survived without major morbidity (≥grade 3 IVH, chronic lung disease, NEC, ≥grade 3 ROP). The mean duration of NICU stay was 19 days. Forty-seven percent of infants were discharged from the hospital, and 43% were retrotransferred to a community facility before discharge home. Significant variation in practices and outcomes were observed in all aspects of NICU care.

Conclusion.

This study provides population-based information about NICU outcomes. Significant variation in NICU practices and outcomes was observed despite Canada's universal health insurance system. This national database provides valuable information for planning research, allocating resources, designing health and public policy, and serving as a basis for longitudinal studies of NICU care in Canada.

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