Neonatal or newborn health focuses on the health of newborns within the first 28-30 days of life. Some important health concerns that may arise for newborns include preterm birth, respiratory problems, low blood sugar, and infections. In severe cases, newborns may even require specialized care in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Not all hospitals are equipped with NICU facilities, and many do not have specialists required to manage NICU cases. For families in rural areas, barriers due to transportation and lack of access to specialists are common.
Telehealth and remote patient monitoring present a unique solution to address these barriers and improve health outcomes for patients both in the NICU and at home, while also reducing overall costs for the health system.
4 Ways Telehealth Can Benefit Neonatal Care:
1. Enhanced specialized care and connectivity
One key advantage of telehealth is that it enables providers to connect with patients and clinical staff remotely. According to a scoping literature review conducted by researchers at Texas A&M University and Texas Children’s Hospital, the demand for neonatal specialists has risen alongside the recent increase in preterm births. As discussed in the review, remote monitoring can be beneficial for the neonatal population, as it allows neonatal specialists to remotely monitor patients and communicate with families. It increases access to care by facilitating specialist care remotely. Through Bluetooth devices such as stethoscopes and pulse oximeters, providers can monitor patients in the NICU from an offsite location.
According to researchers, using this model, not only were these providers able to effectively diagnose and treat patients from their offsite locations, but on-site nurses and patient families also reported feeling well connected to the offsite specialists and felt that their questions were all answered appropriately. Remote monitoring can be a promising option for community hospitals in remote locations, where specialized staff may not always be available.
2. Decreased exposure to infection within the NICU
Another advantage of utilizing telehealth within hospital settings was discussed by researchers at Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington-Seattle. In their study, researchers found that setting up a video telemedicine connection in the rooms of patients under strict isolation positively facilitated inpatient care and interactions with families and support services. Video telemedicine visits also helped reduce the number of health care providers with potential exposure to infection, as only one bedside nurse was required to be present in the patient room. This, in turn, decreased the use of personal protective equipment, reducing costs and increasing PPE availability for use in other areas.
3. Reduction of transfers and overall cost for community hospitals
Telehealth can be used to improve access to care, by facilitating video connections between neonatal specialists at large care centers and providers at smaller hospitals. According to a multiple base-line study conducted by the telehealth team at Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, telehealth intervention was associated with a 29.4% percent reduction in the likelihood that a newborn will be transferred from their community hospital to a larger institution with a fully equipped NICU. Annually, this reduction equated to 67.2 fewer transfers for their care center alone, and an estimated savings of $1,220,352 per year. Avoiding transfers is beneficial to patient families, as it keeps them closer to home and eliminates transfer-associated risks, while simultaneously increasing community hospital revenue.
4. Increased parental-self efficacy through neonatal remote monitoring
Telehealth and RPM can be a valuable tool for patient families after they leave the hospital or NICU. According to a study conducted by researchers in Denmark, parents shared that they had positive experiences with remote neonatal home care, where they were given access to video conferencing and electronic resources. Many parents reported that videoconferencing felt less stressful than in-home visits and they felt that they still received adequate care from their clinical teams. The provided telehealth program also resulted in increased parental self-efficacy and breastfeeding rates, which has positive implications for long term newborn health and can be an effective option for patient families that live in rural or remote locations.
Preliminary studies have shown that there are a variety of ways in which telehealth can be used as a cost effective option to assist newborn patients and families, both within clinical settings and after they return home. Current research and practice have only scratched the surface of the future possibilities in regards to short and long term health for newborns. For example, some research has shown that neonatal and pediatric monitoring not only saves infant lives, but can even serve as a preventive strategy for some adult diseases that otherwise may have gone unchecked. As the field of telehealth grows, further investigation into the use of telehealth in neonatal care may yield even more innovative and positive outcomes for patients.