Stop guessing when the NICU team is needed at a delivery

Stop guessing when the NICU team is needed at a delivery

The other day I met with some colleagues from Obstetrics and other members from Neonatology to look at a new way of configuring our delivery suites.  The question on the table was which deliveries which were always the domain of the high risk labour floor could be safely done in a lower acuity area.  From a delivery standpoint they would have all the tools they need but issues might arise from a resuscitation point of view if more advanced resuscitation was needed.  Would you have enough space for a full team, would all the equipment you need be available and overall what is in the best interests of the baby and family?

We looked at a longstanding list of conditions both antenatal and intrapartum and one by one tried to decide whether all of these were high risk or if some were more moderate.  Could one predict based on a condition how much resuscitation they might need?  As we worked our way through the list there was much discussion but in the end we were left with expert opinion as there was really no data to go by.  For example, when the topic of IUGR infants came up we pooled our collective experience and all agreed that most of the time these babies seem to go quite well.  After a few shoulder shrugs we were left feeling good about our decision to allow them to deliver in the new area.  Now several days later I have some concern that our thinking was a little too simple.  You see, conditions such as IUGR may present as the only risk factor for an adverse outcome but what if they also present with meconium or the need for a instrument assisted delivery.  We would presume the risk for advanced resuscitation (meaning intubation or chest compressions and/or medication need) would be increased but is there a better way of predicting the extent of this risk?

Indeed there might just be

An interesting approach to answer this question has been taken by an Argentinian group in their paper Risk factors for advanced resuscitation in term and near-term infants: a case–control study.  They chose to use a prospective case control study matching one case to 4 control infants who did not require resuscitation.  The inclusion criteria were fairly straightforward.  All babies had to be 34 weeks gestational age or greater and free of congenital malformations.  By performing the study in 16 centres they were able to amass 61953 deliveries and for each case they found (N=196) they found 784 deliveries that were matched by day of birth.  The idea here was that by matching consecutive patients who did not require resuscitation you were standardizing the teams that were present at delivery.

The antepartum and intrapartum risk factors that were then examined to determine strengths of association with need for resuscitation were obtained from the list of risks as per the NRP recommendations.

A Tool For All of Us?

What came out of their study was a simple yet effective tool that can help to predict the likelihood of a baby needing resuscitation when all factors are taken into account.   By resuscitation the authors defined this as intubation, chest compressions or medications.  This is pretty advanced resuscitation!  In essence this is a tool that could help us answer the questions above with far better estimation than a shoulder shrug and an “I think so” response.  The table can be found by clicking on this link to download but the table looks like this.


By inserting checks into the applicable boxes you get a calculated expected need for resuscitation.  Let’s look at the example that I outlined at the start of the discussion which was an IUGR infant. It turns out that IUGR itself increases the background risk for infants 34 weeks and above from 6% to 55% with that one factor alone.  Add in the presence of fetal bradycardia that is so often seen with each contraction in these babies and the risk increases to 97%!  Based on these numbers I would be hesitant to say that most of these kids should do well.  The majority in fact would seem to need some help to transition into this world.

Some words of caution

The definition here of resuscitation was intubation, chest compressions or medications.  I would like to presume that the practioners in these centres were using NRP so with respect to chest compressions and medication use I would think this should be comparable to a centre such as ours.  What I don’t know for sure is how quickly these centres move to intubate.  NRP has always been fairly clear that infants may be intubated at several time points during a resuscitation although recent changes to NRP have put more emphasis on the use of CPAP to establish FRC and avoid intubation.  Having said that this study took place from 2011 – 2013 so earlier than the push for CPAP began.  I have to wonder what the effect of having an earlier approach to intubating might have had on these results.  I can only speculate but perhaps it is irrelevant to some degree as even if in many cases these babies did not need intubation now they still would have likely needed CPAP.  The need for any respiratory support adds a respiratory therapist into the mix which in a crowded space with the additional equipment needed makes a small room even smaller.  Therefore while I may question the threshold to intubate I suspect these results are fairly applicable in at least picking out the likelihood of needing a Neonatal team in attendance.

Moreover I think we might have a quick tool on our hands for our Obstetrical colleagues to triage which deliveries they should really have us at.  A tool that estimates the risk may be better than a shoulder shrug even if it overestimates when the goal is to ensure safety.


Informed Refusal at 22 weeks

Informed Refusal at 22 weeks

While we draw the line at 22 5/7 weeks for offering active resuscitation where I work, what does one do when the family requests resuscitation prior to that point.  While I am a clear fan of social media, one consequence of having such widely available information at our fingertips is that families may already know before you come to speak with them that were they only to have been born in another place like Montreal, the cutoff would have been lower.  When faced with such demands what does one do?  Well, in the case of my own experience it was to give in to the demands of the parents.  While I certainly discourage such heroic attempts, what is one to say when the family having received your opinion states “I want everything done”.  Informed consent is a tricky one in that if you approach a family for informed consent and they refuse to accept your desired direction of care where does that leave you?  It leaves you with informed refusal and if we are being fair to our families we have to accept that informed refusal is just as important as informed consent.

Nothing New?

The truth is informed refusal has been recognized as being critically important to decisions in patient care for many years.  Previous papers on the subject include a nice review by Ridley DT, Informed consent, informed refusal, informed choice–what is it that makes a patient’s medical treatment decisions informed?  What this really comes down to is a patient’s right to personal autonomy and self determination.  Does a parent in this case have the right to do what they want even in the face of dismal odds?  Furthermore where are we placing the importance of values?  Is it physician or patient centric?  In the physician centric world, after we impart our experience and wisdom we expect the patient to generally follow through with what we are steering them towards in cases such as this.  Informed consent of course is meant to be free of coercion but let’s face it, when we truly believe something is fairly futile are we honestly playing an impartial role or using our tone, body language and choice of words to direct families down the path that fits with our own beliefs and values?  I would offer that in most cases when we seek informed consent what we are really doing is seeking to pass along the justification for what we are wanting to do and then moving forward once obtained.

What do we do though when after hearing the pros and cons the family still opts to move forward and worse yet is in disagreement with our preferred plan.  Well there you arrive at informed refusal.  If after hearing our best transfer of information the family still wants to proceed what does one do?  As a physician if I believe something is completely futile and I find myself in this position then I am truly at fault.  Seeking informed consent in this situation was completely inappropriate.  One should have simply said there is nothing that can be done.

The Montreal Example

Getting back to the example that started this piece, if a family knows that there are places in Canada (or let’s be honest, if I know there are survivors in Canada at 22 weeks) that resuscitate and have survivors then it isn’t really futile is it.  I know many of you would say “but the odds are so stacked against the baby” and “they don’t know what they are getting themselves into” but what does one say in this circumstance when despite your best attempts the family still wants to resuscitate?

Therein lies the challenge.  If we approach this as an opportunity for informed consent we need to accept that we may find ourselves face to face with “informed refusal”.  Now I need to be careful here.  I am not advocating a wide open optimistic approach to resuscitation at 22 weeks.  What I am suggesting though is that if you find yourself coming into a unit somewhere in the next few months and find yourselves looking at a 22 week infant don’t jump to conclusions!  Did the family despite all the warnings want this?  Don’t leap to the thought that the Neonatologist is pushing for this but rather it may indeed be a case of a family advocating for their child against all odds.  It may not be something that we agree with in many cases but are we thinking from the perspective of the family or our own value system?



Hold Their Hand

Hold Their Hand

Campaign Closed October 13,2016!  Thank you everyone for the $9359.00 raised!

Each day the number of people following these sites grows and at the time of this post, the largest following on Facebook has over 8200 people who receive the feed on a daily basis.  That is nothing short of remarkable and I hope that each of you gets something out of my writings and postings. I recognise that each post may not “light it up” in your mind but if you get at least a few “a ha” moments along the way then I am very happy that you have found these sites!

What This Is Not!

As I begin hinting at money, many of you may be thinking “here we go”, he is finally asking for some payment for this site!  To be clear I have no interest in personal financial gain from this hobby I have developed, but rather find my joy in sharing ideas, getting your feedback and helping to generate interest overall in topics pertaining to Neonatology.  I have no intention of ever asking for such payment but that doesn’t mean that I might not want to help someone else.  For those of you who make philanthropy a part of your lives you will know the joy that comes from helping others.  Being able to help others need not take tremendous dollars per donor when you have many people banding together to help a cause.  This is the power that I am hoping to harness through this initiative and make a difference in care to our babies in hospital.

For the past year and a half, I have put my fingers to the keyboard to hopefully share my knowledge and expertise with you about an industry I am so passionate about.

My Philanthropic Side

When I am not busy finding content for the sites or being a Neonatologist, I am quite dedicated to philanthropy. One thing people may not realise about our province/country is that the government helps out the best they can financially but with the heavy demands of our province, they can’t meet all the needs. That’s why I’m proud of my partnership with the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba. The Foundation’s donors have helped bridge the gap so our hospital doesn’t go without the specialised items they need. From ultrasounds, starting a breast milk depot, specialised pediatric equipment and funding a position to support Quality Improvement in our unit to a soon to be announced Family Support coordinator position and so much more. But now, I turn to you to help us make the next difference in our unit.

The other day as the Facebook page hit 8,000 followers a thought struck me. What if I asked everyone on the page to just give $1 towards the purchase of a piece of equipment for babies in our units?

Hold Their Hand

In the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), they are watched closely to make sure they are getting the right balance of fluids and nutrition. Incubators or special warmers help babies maintain their body temperature. This reduces the energy the babies have to use to stay warm and allow them to use that energy elsewhere.

Premature babies need to receive good nutrition so they grow at a rate close to that of babies still inside the womb. Babies born under 38 weeks have different nutritional needs than babies born at full term (after 38 weeks). They often have problems feeding from a bottle or a breast. This is because they are not yet mature enough to coordinate sucking, breathing, and swallowing.

Many NICUs will give donor milk from a milk bank to high-risk babies who cannot get enough milk from their own mother. But because the baby must be kept at a certain temperature to stay warm, so does their milk. Breastmilk warmer-02

Thanks to the generous support of donors to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Manitoba, 12 milk warmers have been purchased. However, we need 24 more warmers to keep up with demand. Each one costs $2,000 and will make a huge impact. An impact to help our babies get the nutrition they need at the temperature they require to survive and thrive.

So let’s hold their hand and let’s do it together! Has this journey of learning been worth at least $1 to you?  If it has, then please help make a difference by giving at least $1.  Giving more will only increase the power of this campaign!  If you aren’t able to donate $1 or more, I ask that you share this post and challenge your friends to help make a difference to the over 1,000 patients we see a year. Click the link below to donate and make your difference today.


Could this be the perfect home apnea monitor?

Could this be the perfect home apnea monitor?

A question that we are asked from time to time is whether a home apnea monitor should be purchased after discharge from the hospital.  The typical parent is one who has experienced the ups and downs of apnea of prematurity and is faced with the disturbing notion of coming off monitors and going home.  “What if he has an event at home and I don’t know”?  This leads to a search on the web for home monitors which finds numerous options to choose from.  This is where things get interesting from a North American perspective.

In the two centres I have worked at in Canada our answer to such a question is to save your money and not buy one.  Contrast this with two families I know in the US who were sent home by the hospital with home apnea monitors.  How can the advice between the two nations be so different?  I suspect the great risk of a lawsuit in the US is responsible at least in part but it may have to do with risk tolerance as well.

What does the evidence say?

First off, one might surmise that the use of a home apnea monitor helps hospitals move patients to the home faster than those centres that don’t prescribe them.  A 2001 Cochrane systematic review on the subject noted that this was not the case and determined that out of nearly 15000 neonates studied the greatest predictor of sending such babies home on monitors was physician preference.

In the largest home monitoring study of its kind, the Collaborative Home Infant Monitoring Evaluation (CHIME) demonstrated some very important information.  First off, ex-preterm infants have events and some of them quite significant after discharge.  What the study which followed discharged infants at risk of SIDS in the home environment found though was that term infants also have events although less severe.  Does this mean that everyone should run out and buy such monitoring equipment though?  No!  The main reason was that while the study did show that events may continue after discharge, it failed to show that these events had any relation to SIDS.  The apneic events noted in hospital disappeared long before the arrival of a risk for SIDS.  They really are separate entities.

The other issue with such monitors pertains to false alarms which can lead to sleepless nights, anxiety in parents and eventual abandonment of such technology.  This led the AAP in 2005 to declare that they did not endorse such practice.  Having said that, it is clear from my own experience with two US ex-preterm infants that this practice remains alive and well.

Could this be the solution?

One of my followers sent me this tonight and I have to say at the very least I am intrigued.  The device is called the Owlet and was featured in this article  The Sock That Could Save Your Babies Lifeowlet-baby-on-back-with-phone-connected

Watch the video here.

This monitor has me a little excited as it brings the home apnea monitor into the modern era with smart phone connectivity and at the same time helps the developers of this technology use data collected every two seconds to get a clearer picture on breathing patterns in infants that have been sent home.  The saturation monitor in a sock is at the core of this technology which is meant to keep the probe in a relatively stable location.  It brings another angle to the concept of wearable tech!    What I find most interesting is the claim by the manufacturer that the device has a false alarm rate similar to that of a hospital saturation probe which would make it quite reliable.

I note though that the product has not received FDA approval yet (at least on the source I looked at) but is being worked on.  The challenge though is whether this will truly make a difference.  It may well have an excellent detection rate and it may in fact detect true apnea leading to bradycardia and cyanosis.  What it won’t do though is change the natural history of these events once home.  It may capture them very well but I suspect the four events that the mother in the video describes may have been self resolving if she hadn’t intervened.  We know from the CHIME study that the events seen in the home did not lead to death from SIDS so I see no reason why these would be different.

Is it useless?

I suppose that depends on your perspective.  From a data collection point, obtaining data every two seconds in a cloud based storage environment will allow this company to describe the natural history of respiratory patterns in ex-preterm infants better than I suspect has ever been done before.  From a population standpoint I suppose that is something!  At an individual level I suppose it depends on your strength of “needing to know”.  This may well be the best monitor out there and it may one day be the most reliable.  Will it save your baby’s life?  I doubt it but might it give you piece of mind if it false alarms very infrequently?  I think it just might but based on the low likelihood of it changing the outcome of your baby you won’t see me recommending it.  If I come across one make no mistake about it, I will want to play with it myself!






Walk but don’t run to reduce apnea of prematurity

Walk but don’t run to reduce apnea of prematurity

Now that I have caught your attention it is only fair that I explain what I mean by such an absurd title.  If you work with preterm infants, you have dealt with apnea of prematurity.  If you have, then you also have had to manage such infants who seemingly are resistant to everything other than being ventilated.  We have all seen them.  Due to increasing events someone gives a load of methylxanthine and then starts maintenance.  After a couple days a miniload is given and the dose increased with the cycle repeating itself until nCPAP or some other non-invasive modality is started.  Finally, after admitting defeat due to persistent episodes of apnea and/or bradycardia, the patient is intubated.  This, in the absence of some other cause for apnea such as sepsis or seizures is the methylxanthine resistant preterm infant.  Seemingly no amount of treatment will amount to a reduction in events and then there is only so much that CPAP can do to help.

What Next?

Other strategies have been attempted to deal with such infants but sadly none have really stood the test of time.  Breathing carbon dioxide might make sense as we humans tend to breathe quickly to excrete rising CO2 but in neonates while such a response occurs it does not last and is inferior to methylxanthine therapy.  Doxapram was used in the past and continues to be used in Europe but concerns over impacts on neurodevelopment have been a barrier in North America for some time.  Stimulating infants through a variety of methods has been tried but the downside to using for example a vibrating mattress is that sleep could be interfered with and there are no doubt impacts to the preterm infant of having weeks of disturbed sleep states on developmental outcomes.

What if we could make our preterm infants walk?

This of course isn’t physically practical but two researchers have explored this question by using vibration at proprioceptors in the hand and foot.  Such stimulation may simulate limb movement and trick the brain into thinking that the infant is walking or running.  Why would we do this?.  It has been known for 40 years that movement of limbs as in walking triggers a respiratory stimulatory effect by increasing breathing.  This has been shown in adults but not in infants but this possibility is the basis of a study carried out in California entitled Neuromodulation of Limb Propriceptive Afferents Decreases Apnea of Prematurity and Accompanying Intermittent Hypoxia and Bradycardia.  This was a small pilot study enrolling 19 patients of which 15 had analyzable data.  The design was that of alternating individual preterm infants born between 23 – 35 weeks to receive either vibratory stimulation or nothing and measuring the number and extent of apnea and bradycardia over these four periods.  In essence this was a proof of concept study.

The stimulation is likened to that felt when a cell phone vibrates as this was the size of device used to generate the sensation.  iphone-6s-plus-home-screen-heroThe authors note that during the periods of stimulation the nurses noted no signs of any infant waking or seeming to be disturbed by the sensation.  The results were quite interesting especially when noting that 80% of the infants were on caffeine during the time of the study so these were mostly babies already receiving some degree of stimulation

Should we run out and buy these?

The stimulation does appear to work but with any small study we need to be careful in saying with confidence that this would work in a much larger sample.  Could there have been some other factor affecting the results?  Absolutely but the results nonetheless do raise an eyebrow.  One thing missing from the study that I hope would be done in a larger sample next time is an EEG.  The authors are speculating that by placing the vibration over the hand and foot the brain is perceiving the signal as limb movement but it would have been nice to see the motor areas of the brain “lighting up” during such stimulation.  As we don’t have that I am left wondering if the vibration was simply a form of mild noxious stimulus that led to these results.  Of course in the end maybe it doesn’t matter if the results show improvement but an EEG could also inform us about the quality of sleep rather than relying on nursing report of how they thought the baby tolerated the stimulus.  I know our nursing colleagues are phenomenal but can they really discern between quiet and active sleep cycles?  Maybe some but I would guess most not.  There will also be the naysayers out there that will question safety.  While we may not perceive a gentle vibration as being harmful, with such a small number of patients can we say that with certainty?  I am on the side of believing it is probably insignificant but then again I tend to see the world through rose coloured glasses.

Regardless of the filter through which you view this world of ours I have to say I am quite excited to see where this goes.  Now we just have to figure out how to manage the “real estate” of our infant’s skin as we keep adding more and more probes that need a hand or a foot for placement!