Along with concerns over their child's health and well-being, many parents with children in the NICU struggle with feelings of helplessness. With nurses and doctors doing much of the work behind closed doors, parents can feel separated from their new babies. These issues are the inspiration behind this hospital's app for NICU babies, which aims to help send families home together earlier and get parents involved in their care from the very beginning.
Traditionally, babies at the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital neonatal intensive care unit would spend long periods of time being heavily monitored by high-tech medical equipment, kept there until they were deemed well enough to go home. And when that time came, they often went home with "a big binder full of tables and charts for parents to fill out," calling in updates to doctors every few days, according to Jeffrey Vergales, a pediatric cardiologist at UVA.
"It was 100-year-old pen and paper technology that was vastly different from the modern monitoring systems used at the hospital," Vergales tells Romper. And this system required babies to stay in the NICU until they were "perfectly healthy," Vergales says.
Brooke Vergales, a NICU pediatrician and wife to Jeffrey, told People that babies had to have mastered these things before they could leave. "They have to be able to feed by mouth or they have to get a [feeding] tube, which is a surgically placed tube into their stomach, they need to be breathing on their own and they need to be at a stable temperature," she told the publication. But towards the end of their stay, Brooke told People that medical professionals were doing things that parents could do at home.
And that's where the app comes in.
Together with Locus Health, a rapidly growing digital health company, the Vergales and UVA designed an Apple iPad app that allows parents to keep up with the care their babies were receiving in the hospital once they're home. Parents can track feedings and weight gain, uploading it to the app where it is seamlessly integrated into the babies' medical record. That way, both parents and doctors can get instant updates on the child's health, unlike the pen-and-paper system it replaced.
As for the old system, Vergales says it was just antiquated. "We wanted to update that while treating data from high risk patients with the same fidelity and security as while they were in the hospital," he tells Romper. The app is a way of “transitioning them back to their lives in a better way,” he says.
With the technology, parents no longer have to interpret data like they would when filling in charts and tables on paper. They just use the iPad to report back to doctors and care providers who know what the numbers mean, as NBC News reported. In turn, parents are free to focus on being the best parents they can.
Vergales tells Romper that he was concerned in the beginning, when they first launched the app, that parents wouldn't respond well to the program, but he found the opposite to be true.
For one thing, parents are empowered by the iPads, he says, and the technology relieves them of the feelings of helplessness that come with having a baby in the NICU. According to BabyCenter, helplessness is a common emotion experienced by parents with a baby in intensive care; along with guilt, self-pity, detachment from baby, anger, a need to get away, and reluctance to take their baby home. And while the app doesn't help with all of these feelings, it goes a long way towards helping parents gain confidence and feel involved.
Indeed, the technology helps to ease some of their nerves and creates a bit of a crutch for them as they transition to monitoring their babies on their own. "We worried that parents would be reluctant to step away from the technology when the time came, but that wasn’t the case. The anxiety that we expected didn’t exist," Vergales says.
Of course, not every parent loves it, Vergales says, because nothing is perfect, but overall it is really working for parents and doctors alike. According to Vergales, the iPad program created an “easy, streamlined way to send babies home with their families sooner" and once the period of reporting back to doctors is over, Vergales says parents tend to feel capable and prepared to look after their children on their own.
Essentially, they are engaged by the program, which allows them to be a part of their child’s care team from the beginning, according to the University of Virginia Health System website.
Younger, first-time parents in particular have had extremely positive responses to the program. "These are people who were raised in the era of technology; they’re used to communicating and transmitting data in this way," Vergales tells Romper. "They’re uploading photos and videos, and inputting data in a way that blends in with their communication throughout the day … It just makes sense."
Vergales also explained why this program is working so well:
This was not just throwing technology at a problem, but including tech in the process of solving an underlying issue. It’s important to think through the specific problem and how technology can contribute to the solution — not just expect an app to solve the problem on its own.
Unlike some baby monitoring programs and apps that simply bombard parents with data, this program involves medical professionals who can digest and make use of the information, as NBC 29 reported. It’s specific and meaningful monitoring.
“The clinical and the user-facing technology have to work together. Here, data goes into the medical record," Vergales tells Romper. "It’s not just random data being collected; it is the same information that is being monitored in the hospital, just done at home.”
The results speak for themselves; Brooke told People that she has sent 30 babies home with their parents using the program so far with no issues. Since beginning at UVA, the app has been picked up by 15 other major children’s hospitals across the country, according to People, and the Vergales and Locus Health hope to spread it to even more.
I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't want to offer this opportunity to their NICU families.