Living in the Hospital: The Vulnerability of Children with Chronic Critical Illness

Alexandra R. Ruth, Renee D. Boss, Pamela K. Donohue, Miriam C. Shapiro, Jessica C. Raisanen, and Carrie M. Henderson




The number of children with chronic critical illness (CCI) is a growing population in the United States. A defining characteristic of this population is a prolonged hospital stay. Our study assessed the proportion of pediatric patients with chronic critical illness in U.S. hospitals at a specific point in time, and identified a subset of children whose hospital stay lasted for months to years. The potential harms of a prolonged hospitalization for children with CCI, which include over treatment, infection, disruption of family life, and the intensive utilization of resources—combined with the moral distress experienced by the clinicians who care for the children, suggest the need for ethical analysis of this growing issue to identify actions that could be taken at the clinical and health systems levels to reduce the harms associated with prolonged hospital stay.

      In this article we present three real cases from our study that involved a very long hospital stay. We applied a framework developed by Mackenzie, Rogers, and Dodds to analyze inherent, situational, and pathogenic vulnerabilities to examine the ways that interventions intended to remedy one source of harm for the children in our cohort inadvertently created other harms. We examined the complex ways that children with protracted hospitalization are vulnerable to the choices made by their family and clinicians, as well as by healthcare systems and communities. Finally, we used this analysis to summarize actions and ethical responses to this growing patient population. Such an understanding is essential to making clinical and ethical decisions that arise for children who are at risk for a very long stay in the hospital.




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