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J Perinatol. 2008 Dec;28(12):821-6. doi: 10.1038/jp.2008.103. Epub 2008 Jul 17.

Nobody likes premies: the relative value of patients' lives.

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  • 1Department of Pediatrics, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada.



The objective of this study was to examine whether patient selection or triage requires placing a relative value on human lives and whether the values placed on these lives are consistent with current ethical theories.


An anonymous questionnaire was administered to groups of physicians and students in Montreal. It presented eight currently incompetent patients with potential neurological sequelae requiring emergency care. Predicted outcomes were explicitly described. Four patients had a predicted 50% survival and a 50% chance of impairment; they were a preterm and a term neonate, a 2-month-old and a 50-year-old. Two already disabled patients, a 7-year-old and an 80-year-old, had 50% predicted survival. A 14-year-old and a 35-year-old had 5% survival, but differing impairment. Respondents were asked if they would resuscitate and in what order they would resuscitate if all needed intervention simultaneously.


Eighty-five percent response rate, n=524. The proportion stating they would always resuscitate was smallest for the 80-year-old (18% P<0.001 compared to other patients), then the preterm (35%, P<0.001), then the term and the 50-year-old (53 and 58%, P<0.01). The 2-month-old and the 7-year-old would be resuscitated most frequently (74 and 77%, P<0.01), followed by the patients with 5% survival (64 and 68%, P<0.001). The median order of triage was first the 2-month-old, followed by the 7-year-old, the 14-year-old, the term newborn, the 50-year-old, the 35-year-old, the premature newborn and the 80-year-old.


Order of resuscitation was not closely related to the predicted survival, impairment or potential life years gained. Age appeared to have a strong influence, with children's lives being valued more than the adults'. This tendency was reversed for the newborn infants who were undervalued compared with older children, and most particularly for the premature. The value placed on the life of newborns, in particular the premature, is less than that expected by any objective medical data and was not consistent with any ethical theory that we tested.

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