Small number of hospitals give seriously preterm infants a fighting chance at life

The decision to provide the youngest preterm infants with potentially lifesaving treatment differs among major academic medical centers nationwide, and that difference could determine whether these tiniest of infants survive, according to a University of Iowa study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

NICU baby University of Iowa researchers Matthew Rysavy, a senior medical student, and Edward Bell, MD, professor of pediatrics in the Stead Family Department of Pediatrics, studied the cases of nearly 5,000 infants born before 27 weeks gestation at 24 academic hospitals participating in the Neonatal Research Network between 2006 and 2011. The network is part of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Rysavy, Bell, and their collaborators studied the births to determine which extremely preterm infants received active care (efforts to save the life of the infant) and which received only comfort care (keeping the infant comfortable until he or she passed away).

“We were interested in the differences in outcomes that exist for the earliest preterm infants among U.S. academic medical centers,” Rysavy says. “There are large differences in outcomes like mortality and childhood delays and disabilities, and we looked at this variation and wanted to understand why it exists.”

Rysavy and Bell

Matthew Rysavy and Edward Bell, MD

What they found was that much of the difference in outcomes could be explained by whether efforts were made to save the life of the youngest infants after they were born. At most centers, active care was not provided for infants born before 22 weeks into pregnancy. (A usual term pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks.) Active care was provided for all infants born at or after 25 weeks of pregnancy at almost all hospitals. However, between these two extremes—for infants born 22, 23, or 24 weeks into pregnancy—there was substantial variation among hospitals in whether infants were actively treated.

Infants born at 22 weeks into pregnancy received potentially lifesaving treatment after birth at fewer than one in four hospitals; the decision to apply the treatment took into account the mother’s health or age, the infant’s birth weight, or whether the mother received prenatal care. Infants born at 23 weeks received the same treatment at one in three hospitals. These variations in treatment influenced hospital rates of survival and of early childhood outcomes such as developmental delay and cerebral palsy.

Because the approaches to active treatment vary among hospitals, “there is a real problem if doctors are talking to parents about their baby’s chances using outcome data that include babies for whom no active treatment was offered,” Bell says. “What parents want to know is, ‘If our baby is treated, what are her chances?’”

By illustrating how differences in the approach to treating infants born at 22, 23, and 24 weeks relate to hospital outcomes, the study provides information that can help improve the evidence used to make decisions about infants’ care. Ultimately, the care of each individual infant must be decided by the parents and doctors based on the best available information.

UIChildrensUniversity of Iowa Children’s Hospital

The names of those hospitals surveyed were removed for the study, although the NICU at University of Iowa Children’s Hospital was included and is among the 22.1 percent of hospitals to provide active care for infants at 22 weeks gestation. Survival rates at the NICU at UI Children’s Hospital for babies born as 23, 24, and 25 weeks are significantly higher than those at other U.S. hospitals: 71 percent at 23 weeks, 86 percent at 24 weeks and 90 percent at 25 weeks.

Watch other UI Children’s Hospital videos at

Media stories

New York Times: Premature babies may survive at 22 weeks if treated, study finds

Wall Street Journal: Premature babies may benefit from intensive-care treatment

MedPage Today: No standard treatment for extreme preemies

Associated Press: Hospital efforts to save very premature babies vary widely

IowaNow: UI researchers: Lifesaving treatment for extremely preterm infants varies between hospitals

Health Leaders Media: Efforts to Save Premature Babies Vary Widely


  1. What remarkable news about remarkable outcomes for pre-term babies at UI Children’s Hospital!

  2. We were blessed with receiving care at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital when our son was born at 25.5 in May 2014. He was born at Covenant Hospital in Waterloo and then taken to UICH where we stayed 160 days. We returned to Waterloo for the last 21 days since Covenant Medical center partners with UICH. We simply can not say enough good things about the quality of care we received from UICH. You made our family complete! Our son is now growing and thriving because of the skill and expertise of the doctors, nurses and many staff at the University.

  3. I am pretty sure the picture used in the above picture of the baby with the knitted Iowa hat is my son, Jack. Jack was born at 28 weeks and 2lbs very unexpectedly due to preeclampsia. I am so very thankful that Jack and I were lucky enough to be in the very capable hands of the staff at U of I. I will be forever grateful for the empathy and professionalism of the staff during that overwhelming 60 day stay in the NICU. Jack turned 3 years old in January of 2015. Jack has no health problems at all and is a very happy child. Because of the incredible care of the men and women at The University of Iowa hospital I have the family I dreamed of. I am an alumni of The University of Iowa and feel so proud of the wonderful teaching school available to students and the community. The Hawkeyes have a new fan!

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