A fascinating trial that went underway in the United Kingdom during the pandemic could lead the way for robot technology to save the lives of countless preterm newborns. The technology allows neonatology specialists to remotely treat babies in distress, especially ones born in smaller hospitals that do not have NICUs.
Multitasking Robots Have Potential to Save Preterm Children
In some positive pandemic news coming from the United Kingdom, two children’s hospitals are using breakthrough technology involving robots to save the lives of hundreds of premature babies.
The robots — also called Teladoc devices — allow specialists to use their expertise in emergency medical situations from afar. The specialists, sometimes retired neonatologists acting as consultants, make bedside video calls to help treat newborns in need of medical care.
While the program began in response to the pandemic, there are now plans to roll out Teladoc on a broader scale. A larger rollout would help smaller hospitals treat children needing specialized emergency care — especially preterm babies.
This is great news for smaller hospitals that often do not have neonatal intensive care units (NICUs), which are specialized hospital areas where babies who need serious medical care are treated.
“This definitely has the potential to save the lives of extremely preterm infants who were born outside of specialist centres, and improve their outcomes.”
— Dr. Chris Dewhurst, clinical director, Liverpool Neonatal Partnership
NICUs often have neonatologists on staff. Neonatologists are specially trained in caring for newborn children and are essential since babies present unique health challenges that require a high level of medical expertise. This is especially true with premature babies, who may be at risk of severe conditions such as cerebral palsy.
Robots Have Had Positive Effects on NICU Quality of Care
Since these robots being used in the NICU allow neonatologists to help babies when they otherwise couldn’t, there are many positive outcomes for the children.
Robots allow neonatologists to better monitor a baby’s:
- Glucose levels
- Heart rate
These factors can greatly affect whether a premature baby needs immediate medical treatment from a neonatologist.
While the United Kingdom’s Teladoc robotics program is showing much promise, it was not the first of its kind.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Perinatology compared NICU patients treated by an on-site neonatologist to those treated by a remote neonatologist through robotic technology.
The study’s findings were positive and found that using robotic telemedicine is a realistic approach for treating babies in the NICU.
How Do These Robots Work?
The telemedicine robots have cameras, screens, a stethoscope, and sit on a mobile frame. This technology can also be linked to MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans and other imaging devices to allow a specialist to watch from anywhere while reviewing the patient’s medical records.
It is plausible to believe this setup could be even better in some situations due to the ideal visibility offered by the robot’s moving frame.
Will This Technology Be Available in the United States?
While the telemedicine robots are currently being tested in the United Kingdom, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, is running a similar neonatology telemedicine system.
In the Mayo Clinic’s program, neonatologists support 19 other hospitals across the region. When there is a difficult birth, the clinic’s specialists aim to be online for remote consultations in five minutes or less.
“What we’ve observed is that the odds of a baby needing a transfer to a higher level of care or transfer to a hospital with an NICU are reduced by anywhere from 30 to 50%.”
— Dr. Jennifer Fang, medical director, Mayo Clinic’s teleneonatology program
According to Dr. Fang, they have not had any birth injury cases in eight years since the program has been in place.
A study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found that when neonatologists were involved in care, smaller hospitals were less likely to be overwhelmed by difficult deliveries and resulted in fewer birth injury cases overall.
Are There Other Uses For Robots in the NICU?
There have been several studies that show other uses for robots in the NICU.
In one study, a therapeutic robot named Calmer was created to help mimic a parent’s heartbeat, breathing, and the feel of their skin. This is exciting because health care providers recommend skin-to-skin contact when babies are in distress to help them cope and stay calm.
Another study involved a group of neonatologists who used robots to perform bedside rounds. The robots also helped provide daily care to babies with more mild illnesses.
In yet another example, robots in an NICU were used to help with the medication process. This is important because administering medicine to babies is costly, time-consuming, and risky. Babies (especially preterm ones) are vulnerable to medication errors. Using robotic medication is showing promise for improving safety and reducing risk.
These fascinating studies offer new hope to help babies in the NICU. The increased use of robotics to help preterm babies is an exciting advancement in treating complications during birth.