Scott L. Greer, Ph.D.
Professor, Health Management and Policy, Global Public Health, and Political Science
Physician Autonomy in Neonatology from 1979-2016: The Forces of Law, Ethics, Technology, and Families
Charley Willison, University of Michigan
Michael Rozier, St. Louis University
Scott L. Greer, University of Michigan
Joel Howell, University of Michigan
Renee Anspach, University of Michigan
Ann Greer, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Neonatology as a field has pushed the boundary of which lives can be saved, now making it possible for babies to survive even if they are born ten earlier than than Patrick Kennedy, whose treatment in 1963 marked a surge into public consciousness for the field. Neonatologists are therefore positioned on frontiers of both medical advance and legal, ethical, and social debates.
Like other medical specialists, neonatologists face competing pressures. They must balance what can be done for their patients against what should be done for their patients. Evolving technology constantly changes what can be done, which means providers regularly reconsider what should be done. Because the neonatologist’s patient is always silent about her or his wishes, providers must give heed to the interests voiced by other interested parties. First among these are their patients’ caregivers, usually parents. Neonatologists also face pressure from colleagues both within neonatology and in other specialties. Additionally, hospital administration also shapes provider choices, especially related to matters of finance and public relations. Neonatologists must also navigate social forces, especially in law and ethics, that can be particularly challenging in the United States, where any question related to reproduction can quickly become a social controversy far beyond a single practitioner’s control.
Our study attempts to answer the following question: Over the past several decades, how have neonatologists negotiated these complex pressures when making life-and-death decisions? To put it more personally, in a field where providers must often choose between the lesser of many poor options, how do neonatologists arrive at decisions that they can live with? To answer these questions, we draw upon existing scholarship in the history of neonatology9,10 as well as several waves of interviews with physicians that took place over the course of nearly four decades. Our approach is to explore changes that limit the professional autonomy of neonatologists by comparing the findings of interview data collected since 1979 with the better-known technological, organizational, and legal or ethical developments surrounding neonatologists. Neonatologists created a new area of medicine by rescuing children who had previously died, but thereby exposed themselves to pressures from parents to the law.