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Innovator Semifinalist Team: Neonatal Telemedicine Program Takes Off at Children’s Medical Center Dallas

February 20, 2014
by Rajiv Leventhal
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TeleNICU at Children’s goes beyond just videoconferencing

Children’s Medical Center Dallas was recognized as a semifinalist in the 2013 Healthcare Informatics Innovator Awards program. Leaders of this team, along with leaders of the four finalist teams, will be recognized at the Healthcare Informatics Innovator Awards Reception, to be held in Orlando on Feb. 24 at the annual HIMSS conference.

As part of its telemedicine initiative, the 595-bed Texas-based Children’s Medical Center Dallas deployed the teleNICU (neonatal intensive care unit) in 2013 in order to meet the demand for access to pediatric subspecialists, which is a problem in the state, says Jeff Blythe, the organization’s information systems communications manager.

The Children’s Medical Center NICU unit is designated as a Level IV NICU—the highest possible rating, which means that Children’s is equipped and staffed to care for the most fragile patients with complex medical conditions, Blythe says. “Children’s teleNICU   program is unique in that it is not just a videoconferencing system between patients and doctors—the program consists of fully dedicated neonatologists that are on call 24/7 for telemedicine consults,” says Blythe.

Additionally, the technology and equipment used within the program allows Children’s to connect and consult with other hospital NICUs located anywhere within Texas and beyond, he says.  “The beautiful part of telemedicine is that it is not geographically bound,” Blythe says. “It allows us to be unconcerned about proximity of the outside NICU. We are able to deliver this service wherever there is a need for Level-IV NICU advice and support.”                                                                                                                   

The teleNICU equipment and technology is highly specialized and is designed so that the instrumentation used for exams is able to transmit telemetry information back to Children’s (all data transmitted is secured and encrypted at rest and in transit), Blythe explains.

“This means that a Children’s neonatologist can see and hear the vital signs from the exam equipment as if he or she was conducting the exam in person,” he says. “As a result, all nurseries through Level III NICU will be able to collaborate interactively with Children’s. Caregivers at an outlying hospital can conduct a full exam within their own familiar environment while a Children’s neonatologist participates interactively in the exam from Children’s teleNICU studio,” says Blythe.

Aside from the technology that makes this program possible, there are human considerations that are immeasurable, according to Blythe. “NICU patients are among the most fragile, and transporting these infants can sometimes be difficult given their condition. As such, the teleNICU program allows other hospitals to consult first with Children’s and determine if the child can be treated where he or she is currently located, or if the baby’s condition is such that transport is necessary, Blythe says.  He adds that if the consultation reveals that a child can be treated locally, the family’s financial and emotional burdens are lightened and they can focus on just the child, and not on worrying about transportation, lodging, and the logistics of traveling to and from Dallas, which could be hundreds of miles away.

“Should the neonate’s condition truly warrant a transfer to the Level IV NICU at Children's, the experience is made more ideal due to the teleNICU connection,” says Blythe. “Parents will have ‘virtually’ met the UT neonatologists that will be caring for their baby at Children’s upon arrival.”

In the summer of 2013, Children’s launched its first teleNICU partnership with a hospital located more than 90 miles away in Tyler, Texas. Through the teleNICU program, the neonatologists in Tyler have been able to interactively consult with the neonatologists at Children’s. Blythe says there have been a number of success stories since the program’s inception, and the initial launch has been so well-received that the organization plans to expand the program to 25 hospital locations over the next two years.

“We think this program represents the future of healthcare,” says Blythe. “Through effective deployment, the teleNICU and other telemedicine programs can help reduce costs, improve care delivery, and provide a better experience for patients and families across the continuum of care.”