Conference Coverage

A gentler approach to gastroschisis improves outcomes



In 2015, the University of California changed how its hospitals handle gastroschisis, a condition in which infants are born with their intestines and sometimes other organs protruding through a hole beside the umbilicus.

M. Alexander Otto/MDedge News

Dr. Kara Calkins

Neonatologists, maternal-fetal health experts, and pediatric surgeons standardized a literature-based approach that was gentler and less invasive than usual management, emphasizing sutureless closure, sometimes at bedside on the first day of life, and early feeding. Often, it turned out, that’s all that children require.

It’s made a big difference. “We reduced the number of trips to the operating room and exposure to general anesthesia. We reduced the number of babies intubated and days on the ventilator. We reduced opioid days and antibiotic days” without increasing bacteremia, and “there are probably long-term benefits beyond the NICU,” said Kara Calkins, MD, at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting.

I think this is definitely ahead of the curve for NICUs. My hope is that the vast majority of universities adopt a similar approach,” said Dr. Calkins, who is an assistant professor of neonatology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“When I was a fellow,” she explained, “we took all of these babies and intubated them right away and put them on a drip to paralyze and sedate them. We put their bowels into a silo,” essentially a plastic bag suspended by a string, in the hopes that gravity would pull the bowels back into the abdomen. More often than not, however, “the surgeon would come by every day and slowly push them” back in over a week or so. “The fear was if you did it too quickly, you’d invoke an abdominal compartment syndrome, or respiratory decompensation. You had a baby intubated for a week, sedated and paralyzed.”

Infants were kept on total parenteral nutrition for weeks, sometimes through a Broviac central catheter.

It was overkill, Dr. Calkins said, when only the intestines are out and the abdominal wall defect isn’t too large or too small, which is the case for many infants.

For those children, sutureless closure over 1-3 days is the new goal. The bowel is worked back into the abdomen and the umbilical cord is pulled to the side to approximate the edges of the wound, and tacked down; the defect then heals itself. Antibiotics are discontinued 48 hours after closure. Gastric and rectal decompression helps with reduction.

Also, “we give drops of breast milk in their cheek right away, every couple of hours starting on the first day of life. Once the output from the gastric tube is clear, we start feeds. We still give total parenteral nutrition, but through a [peripherally inserted central catheter] in the arm,” Dr. Calkins said. “Use of breast milk for this population is important” to help establish a healthy microbiome, among other reasons.

Another improvement that had been made, according to Dr. Calkins, is that if only the intestines are out, women carry their baby to term and deliver vaginally. The old practice was to deliver babies preterm by Cesarean section, she explained.

To see how it’s worked out, Dr. Calkins and her colleagues reviewed 70 gastroschisis cases managed under the new guidelines. They were uncomplicated cases, with no intestinal atresia, stricture, or ischemia.

Paralysis was avoided for silo placement in 53 infants (76%) and 32 (46%) avoided intubation. Antibiotics were discontinued in 56 (80%) within 48 hours of abdominal wall closure, and routine narcotics were discontinued in 53 infants (76%). Feeds were initiated in almost all children within 48 hours of non-bilious gastric tube output.

Compared with 168 infants treated before the changes were made, silo placement dropped from 71% to 58% of infants, and total ventilator days from a median of 5 to 2.

There was no difference in length of stay, perhaps because the “intestinal dysmotility intrinsic to gastroschisis remains a rate limiting factor for discharge,” the team concluded.

There was no industry funding, and Dr. Calkins didn’t have any disclosures.

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