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Telemedicine Gives Newborns a Welcome to the World

A rural Texas hospital has established a link with one of the state's top pediatric medical centers to offer real-time assistance for its most delicate patients.

By Eric Wicklund

- A west Texas hospital has set up a telemedicine link to connect its smallest patients with immediate specialist care.

Shannon Medical Center, a 400-bed hospital based in San Angelo, which boasts a population of slightly less than 100,000, is partnering with Fort Worth-based Cook Children’s Medical Center to – in the words of its chief medical officer – bring in the “super specialists” to help treat newborns.

The hospital has set up a webcam and video-teleconference station in its neonatal intensive care unit to connect instantly to Cook’s Children’s specialists. The mobile unit, funded by the Children’s Miracle Network, can be wheeled anywhere in the hospital – including the ER.

"We have here at Shannon nine board-certified pediatricians that are actually highly trained to take care of sick babies, but there comes a time when we need a super specialist like a neonatologist, a pediatric cardiologist, a pediatric geneticist, a pediatric surgeon, and we don't have that in San Angelo because of the size of the city," Doug Schultz told NewsOK during a recent demonstration of the platform.

"In addition, the families will be able to meet and talk with the Cook's physicians, which I think will help make the families feel better about what's going on and know we're are trying to achieve the best possible care here at Shannon," he said.

Due to their level of expertise, pediatric specialists are in much demand, and more likely to be found in larger health systems and population centers. For a rural health provider or small hospital, a real-time link to that resource can provide help during or after a child is born – or even be brought in for a consult prior to the birth.

The advantages aren’t limited to rural locations, either. Roughly four years ago, UC San Diego Medical Center launched a telemedicine link to Tri-City Medical Center to enable collaboration with UCSD’s specialists on difficult neonatal cases. Tri-City sees some 500 to 600 premature births each year.

"The power of telemedicine is extraordinary, allowing our NICU specialists to be available at a moment's notice to help provide expert care for these smallest and most fragile of patients," Brett C. Meyer, MD, medical director of UC San Diego's enterprise-wide Telemedicine Program, said in a 2012 interview with "When a complex case arises our partners at Tri-City can request a consult and can contact us using the camera system. Our specialists can not only contribute to the care, but with telemedicine they are, in essence, virtually present in the room with the patient to render assistance."

And the technology isn’t limited to specialist consults. In 2013, Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare installed video links to the 65 NICU beds at Utah Valley regional Medical Center in Provo to enable parents of the newborns to check up on - and even sleep alongside - their babies at any time.

Other mHealth projects include the development of tech-enables wristbands that monitor the vital signs and location of newborns, as well as ensuring that an infant is matched with the right care team and parents; and sensors – both wearable and contact-free – that measure an infant’s vital signs and other physiological data as unobtrusively as possible.

About 20 babies born each year at Shannon have to be transferred to other facilities for specialty care. Cook Children’s lies 230 miles away, a journey of three to four hours by ambulance, and one that can be very challenging to the infants and their families.

“We feel like it’s going to enhance our ability to care for these children, and hopefully keep them at Shannon,” Schultz told a local video news crew during the public demonstration.

Darryl Miao, MD, a neonatologist at Cook Children’s, says this is the first time the hospital has established a telemedicine link with another hospital. He said hospital officials are discussing similar platforms with “several other hospitals.”

"I think this is really great,” he said during the demonstration, in which he appeared via video from Cook Children’s. “It allows us to help … to keep the babies (at Shannon) and close to family."


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