How Technology Helps Care in the NICU

Hospital neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) treat babies who need extra care after birth. And the use of technology can help that care.

UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a Level IV NICU, meaning it cares for all newborns, including infants with the most complex medical and surgical conditions. The NICU uses telehealth and other state-of-the-art technology to treat babies throughout the UPMC footprint.

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How UPMC Children’s Uses Telemedicine in the NICU

UPMC Children’s takes advantage of telemedicine at every step of a baby’s NICU journey. That includes prenatal consultations, care during a baby’s NICU stay, and even consults after a baby’s discharge.

The UPMC Children’s telemedicine program began in the early 2010s. The COVID-19 pandemic helped accelerate the use of telemedicine throughout UPMC hospitals, including in NICU care.

“I think with COVID, what happened is we started to think more about how to leverage telehealth and what are the appropriate uses for telehealth,” says Dr. Abeer Azzuqa, MD, clinical director, NICU, and associate vice chair, Clinical Affairs for Telehealth, UPMC Children’s. “And since then, we have seen a rapid growth in telehealth activities.”

Telemedicine in prenatal care

UPMC Children’s offers prenatal telemedicine consults for high-risk unborn babies who will likely require NICU care.

Moms can meet with UPMC Children’s experts from wherever they are. UPMC Children’s providers can tell them what to expect when their baby is born and during their baby’s NICU stay.

“The beauty of having telemedicine with these consultations is easy access for all families,” Dr. Azzuqa says. “They don’t have to travel from two or three hours away from Pittsburgh to come for an appointment. They can do it from their home and actually more caregivers and family members can join those consults from the get-go.”

Telemedicine during NICU stay

The NICU teams at hospitals throughout UPMC’s communities use telemedicine in many ways during a baby’s NICU stay.

  • On-demand 24/7 consults. UPMC Children’s specialists can provide telemedicine consultations when needed. UPMC Children’s in Lawrenceville has a multidisciplinary team of experts, Dr. Azzuqa says. “Our vision is to allow our team of neonatologists to evaluate babies at any time of the day or night. So, basically, we just want to make sure we are providing the right care for the right patient at the right time.”
  • Virtual rounds. UPMC Children’s has partnered with two regional NICUs for virtual rounds. UPMC Children’s neonatologists can evaluate patients in those regional NICUs. It can help to eliminate unnecessary transfers, Dr. Azzuqa says.
  • Communication with families. If family members can’t be by the baby’s bedside, they can listen in on bedside rounds by dialing in. “It helps families to decrease their anxiety and enhances family-centered care,” Dr. Azzuqa says. “By this, they are listening to rounds as they are happening. ” Cameras on the baby incubators also allow family members to see their baby at any time.
  • Pre-transport communication. If a hospital is transferring a baby to UPMC Children’s, the care team can communicate with that hospital before transport takes place. A tele-transport service — allowing communication during the transport process — will launch soon, Dr. Azzuqa says.

“We are really looking forward to having a big digital transformation along the journey of the NICU stay,” Dr. Azzuqa says.

Telemedicine after NICU discharge

UPMC Children’s continues to provide continuing care through telemedicine after a baby’s discharge from the NICU. One example is tele-lactation services to provide breastfeeding support.

The goal is to continue to give families the support they need as they need it from UPMC experts.

Benefits of Telemedicine in the NICU

Using telemedicine in the NICU can benefit families, hospitals, and communities in several ways.

Benefits in patient care include:

  • An audio/video connection to UPMC Newborn Medicine.
  • Enhanced participation in patient/family education and satisfaction.
  • More family-centered care.
  • The possibility of infants to receive care close to home.
  • Improved patient outcomes.

Benefits to hospitals include:

  • Access to neonatal care across all of the regions UPMC serves.
  • Better collaboration with nurseries to provide needed support.
  • Improved patient outcomes.
  • Continued medical education for NICU care teams.
  • Lower costs.

Regional benefits include:

  • An advanced level of care across the region.
  • Regionalized perinatal and neonatal care.
  • Improved patient outcomes.
  • Lower costs.

“There are areas in western Pennsylvania where they don’t have neonatologists in person,” Dr. Azzuqa says. “So, we thought about telemedicine as a way or a tool to bring neonatal expertise to any baby, regardless of where they are. And by this, babies can actually receive their care closer to home.”

Other Uses of Technology in the NICU

Beyond telemedicine, UPMC Children’s uses state-of-the-art technology to care for babies in the NICU. Examples include:

  • Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). This treatment circulates blood through a pump into an artificial lung and back into a baby’s bloodstream. It can help babies who have heart and lung failure.
  • State-of-the-art ventilators and respiratory support for babies with breathing problems.
  • Neurally adjusted ventilatory assist (NAVA) mode of ventilation.
  • High-tech incubators and warmers. Babies can stay warm in bed to receive care.
  • State-of-the-art monitoring systems. NICU care teams can monitor a baby from a central unit. If an alarm goes off, the team members receive an alert and can provide an immediate response.
  • Real-time monitoring for seizures.
  • Cooling technology for babies with hypoxic
    ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).

As telemedicine and technology continue to advance, NICUs can provide world-class care for babies in need.

“When we look at digital health, it has the potential to transform the whole experience and enhance the family-centered care and family-integrated care in the NICU,” Dr. Azzuqa says. “More technology can help outcomes. And this is what we strive to do, to provide the right care for the right patient at all times and ultimately have the best outcomes ever for our patients.”

UPMC hospitals across our communities provide NICU services for babies who need extra care after birth. For more about the NICU at UPMC Children’s, visit our website.

To learn more about how UPMC uses technology in NICU care, listen to Dr. Azzuqa’s appearance on UPMC Children’s That’s Pediatrics podcast.

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.