A Communication Guide for Pediatric Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation

Pediatr Crit Care Med. 2021 Sep 1;22(9):832-841

Decision-making surrounding extracorporeal membrane oxygenation initiation and decannulation has become a key challenge in critical care. Nuanced communication skills and transparent discussions about prognosis are imperative during this lifesaving, yet high-risk and burdensome intervention. Serious illness conversation guides are proving beneficial for patients, families and staff to communicate uncertainty and facilitate shared decision-making toward goal-concordant care. While the literature emphasizes the imperative to provide guidance for clinicians, no practical guide exists for communicating serious illness and prognostic uncertainty when managing children supported with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation and their families. To address this gap, we propose a structured conversation guide for critical early timepoints during pediatric extracorporeal membrane oxygenation support relevant for all cannulations and subsequent iterative discussions toward decannulation. The overarching approach defines extracorporeal membrane oxygenation as a bridge or temporary support device, part of a larger therapeutic effort toward a specific goal or goals. The Day 0 talk at extracorporeal membrane oxygenation initiation is brief, disclosing the serious nature of needing this level of support, and sets clear expectations toward a goal. The Day 1 talk provides further details about benefits and burdens of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, cultivates prognostic awareness about potential outcomes and elicits families’ goals of care with iterative discussions about how extracorporeal membrane oxygenation may promote these goals. If extracorporeal membrane oxygenation is no longer effective to achieve the intended goal, recommendations are provided for discontinuation of support. When death is anticipated or possible, end-of-life planning, contingencies, and escalation limits should be discussed. The communication framework presented can be adapted to unique institutional and clinical settings. Future research is required to investigate utility and potential barriers to implementation. We anticipate that structured conversations during extracorporeal membrane oxygenation support will facilitate clear expectations toward a common treatment goal, foster therapeutic relationships, ensure clinician alignment and consistent language, mitigate communication gaps, support bereavement, and minimize conflict.