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In a national registry, data were collected on 715 newborn patients with severe respiratory failure supported by extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) in 18 neonatal centers. This represents almost all infants treated with ECMO between 1980 and 1987. Eighty-one percent of the patients survived. This result is statistically significantly better than any other treatment which produces less than 78.4% survival. The most common diagnoses were meconium aspiration (310 patients, 91% survived), respiratory distress syndrome (96 patients, 78% survived), diaphragmatic hernia (121 patients, 65% survived), and sepsis (64 patients, 72% survived). Average pre-ECMO characteristics were: age 59 hours; PaO2 42 torr, PaCO2 41 torr, pH 7.40; ventilator settings FiO2 1.0, pressure 45/4 cmH2O, rate 93. Technical complications occurred in 23.1%, and physiologic complications occurred in 65.6%. Results improved with experience. Survival rate for the first ten patients from each center was 73.5% compared to 83.7% for all subsequent patients. Survival rate did not, however, significantly differ after an institutional experience of 20 patients. These observations were made on a large cohort that could not be accumulated at an individual center. These results indicate that ECMO and lung rest is appropriate and successful treatment for newborn respiratory failure unresponsive to other means of management, and that almost all respiratory failure is reversible in near-term neonates.