Private room vs open bay for the NICU. Can always get a quote from a parent saying it is great but….? At what cost? Impact on staff? Is parent time in those NICUs greater now? Other alternatives?
Included in the post was an article discussing the benefits of such a design. Below I will look at the benefits and risks and conclude with an answer to his last question.
The NICUs of the 1970s through late 1990s have been described as “barn like” or “open concept” but in recent years the belief that single patient rooms (SPR) would offer greater benefit to infants led to the adoption of such a unit design across North America. The imagined benefits would be related to improved parent comfort, creating a desire for families to spend more time with their children. As we move to a “family centred” approach to care, a key goal of all units should be to make their families as comfortable and stress free as possible in order to have a positive experience.
Detractors meanwhile, speak of concern regarding isolation of such infants when families do not visit and moreover a risk that such infants deprived of sensory experience will have impaired development. Last year a paper was published that did not help quell such fears; Alterations in Brain Structure and Neurodevelopmental Outcome in Preterm Infants Hospitalized in Different Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Environments (full article in link). This study which compared infants cared for in SPR to an open unit (the hospital in this study had a mixture of both in their NICU) found a worrisome finding at 2 year follow-up in that the infants in SPR had lower scores on language and a trend towards lower motor scores as well. Additionally, partly explaining such findings may have been differences noted at term equivalent age in both the structure and activity of the children’s brains compared to those cared for in an open environment. We were starting construction on a new NICU at the time this paper was published and I can tell you the findings sent shockwaves through our hospital as many wondered whether this was the right decision.
Devil Is in The Details
Looking further into this study, the urban population bore little resemblance to our own. In our hospital all women are taught how to perform skin to skin care and the majority of our mothers spend a great deal of time with their infants. To see how successful have a look at our recent Kangaroo Care drive results! The families in this study however the average hours per week of parent visitation over the length of stay ranged from 1.8-104 hours with a mean of 19+/- 19 hours. The average number of days held per week over the length of stay was 0-6 days with a mean of 2.4 +/-1.5 days. The average number of days held skin-to-skin over the length of stay ranged from 0-4 days, with a mean of 0.7 +/- 0.9 days. In short they were hardly there.
Statistically significant results (all Ps ≤.05) showed that infants in the SPR NICU weighed more at discharge, had a greater rate of weight gain, required fewer medical procedures, had a lower gestational age at full enteral feed and less sepsis, showed better attention, less physiologic stress, less hypertonicity, less lethargy, and less pain.Nurses reported a more positive work environment and attitudes in the SPR NICU.
This study in fact demonstrated greater maternal involvement in a SPR with improvement in outcomes across the board. It would seem then that in a SPR environment, provided there is enough family visitation and involvement this model truly is superior to the open concept. Furthermore despite concerns by some nurses that the loss of line of sight to their patients will make for a more stressful working environment this does not seem to be the case.
What About Families Who Cannot or Simply Aren’t Visiting Frequently?
The reality is that there are many reasons for parents to be absent for long periods during their newborns stay. Having a home outside of the city with other children to care for, work obligations, or loss of custody and abandonment due to apprehension are just some of these reasons. In our hospital, at least 15-20% of all patients admitted are from outside Winnipeg. The evidence as I see it supports the move to a SPR but what do we do for those children who need more visitation? The solution is a cuddler program. In our new hospital we are grateful for the generosity of our Children’s Hospital Foundation who secured a donor to pay for a coordinator of such a program. The veteran parent who is leading this program ensures that no infant goes beyond a set period of time without feeling the touch or hearing the sound of a voice. Such a program is in fact already in place at our other tertiary hospital and was featured in a lovely article attached here. Taking all the information together that is out there I think that if we can provide the necessary stimulation from both touch and auditory stimuli as well we can provide these infants with the developmental needs that each of them requires.
The SPR is the right design in my mind for families with many benefits that spring forth in such an environment. This need not be a win-lose scenario for your hospital. Do not underestimate the power of a cuddler and don’t hesitate to seek support to initiate such a program. It could mean the difference from going from good to great!
In recent years we have moved away from measuring and reporting gastric residuals. Checking volumes and making decisions about whether to continue feeding or not just hasn’t been shown to make any difference to care. If anything it prolongs time to full feeds without any demonstrable benefits in reduction of NEC. This was shown in the last few years by Riskin et al in their paper The Impact of Routine Evaluation of Gastric Residual Volumes on the Time to Achieve Full Enteral Feeding in Preterm Infants. Nonetheless, I doubt there is a unit in the world that has not had the following situation happen. It is 2 AM and the fellow on call is notified that they need to come and see a patient. On arrival the bedside nurse shows them a syringe that contains dark green murky fluid. The fellow is told that NG tube placement was just being checked and this is what was aspirated. The infant is fine in terms of exam but the question is asked “What should I do with this fluid”. The decision is made that the fluid looks “gross” and they discard it and then decide to resume feedings with a fresh batch of milk. Both parties feel good about discarding what looked totally unappealing for anyone to ingest and the night goes on. If this sounds familiar it should as I suspect this happens frequently.
A colleague of mine introduced me to this concept and I think it may apply here. Purdue University’s writing lab defines a Logical Fallacy in this way “Fallacies are common errors in reasoning that will undermine the logic of your argument. Fallacies can be either illegitimate arguments or irrelevant points, and are often identified because they lack evidence that supports their claim.”
I think we may have one here that has pervaded Neonatology across the globe. Imbedded in the fallacy is the notion that because the dark green aspirates look gross and we often see such coloured aspirates in patients with necrotizing enterocolitis or other bowel disease, all green aspirates must be bad for you. The second fallacy is that the darker the aspirate the more seriously you should consider discarding it. This may surprise you but on their own there isn’t much of anything that has been shown to be wrong with them. Looking for evidence to demonstrate increased rates of NEC or other abdominal issues in an otherwise well patient finds pretty much nothing to support discarding.
The main reason for the share of this paper is what is in Table 3.
Although not significantly different the mean estimates for concentration of bile acids in the pale and dark green aspirates came close to being different. Other nutritional content such as fat, protein and carbohydrate were no different. As the bile became darker though the bile acids tended to increase. It is this point that is worthy of discussion.
A Breakdown of the Aspirate
I’m with you. When you look at that murky dark green fluid in the syringe it just seems wrong to put that back into a belly. Would you want to eat that? Absolutely not but when you break it down into what is in there, suddenly it doesn’t seem so bad. We assume that we would not want to refeed such putrid looking material and that is where the logical fallacy exists. What evidence do we have that refeeding that fluid is bad? As I said above not much at all. Looking at the fact that there is actual nutritional calories in that fluid and bile acids as well you come to realize that throwing it away may truly not be in the best interest of the baby. Calories may wind up in the garbage and along with them, bile acids.
Bile acids are quite important in digestion as they help us digest fat and moreover as they enter the ileum they are reabsorbed in large quantities which go to further help digestion. In addition bile acid concentrations are what helps draw fluid into bile and promotes bile flow. By throwing these bile acids out we could see lower bile volumes and possible malabsorption from insufficient emulsification of fat.
The other unmeasured factors in this fluid are the local hormones produced in the bowel such as motilin which helps with small bowel contractility. Loss of this hormone might lead to impairment of peristalsis which can lead to other problems such as bacterial overgrowth and malabsorption.
Now all of this is speculative I will admit and to throw out one dark green aspirate is not going to lead to much harm I would think. What if this was systematic though over 24 or 48 hours that such aspirates were being found and discarded. Might be something there, What I do think the finding of such aspirates should trigger however is a thorough examination of the patient as dark green aspirates can be found in serious conditions such as NEC or bowel perforation. In the presence of a normal examination with or without laboratory investigations what I take from this study is that we should question are tendency to find and discard. Maybe the time has come to replace such fear with a practice of closing our eyes and putting that dark green aspirate right back where it came from.
Sometime between a week to two weeks you will hear that an ultrasound of your baby’s brain has been ordered. What the team is looking for here is bleeding eithre within the fluid filled chambers of the ventricles (appear black in the picture below with blood that shows up as white). This early ultrasound is meant to pick up this type of injury while one done a few weeks later attempts to pick something else up.
Bleeding occurs due to the fragile naure of the brain tissue when born preterm. The more preterm an infant is the greater the risk of a signficant amount of bleeding. Bleeding tends to occur from an area of the brain just under the lining of the fluid filled ventricles that has a very rich blood supply. Anything that causes fluctuations in blood flow to this area of the brain can lead to injury and bleeding from this site. Blood in the ventricles of the brain is referred to as an Intraventricular hemorrhage or IVH for short.
Classically you will hear the team discuss the results of your baby’s head ultrasounds as having one of five possible categories.
Grade 1 IVH – blood just under the lining of the ventricle
Grade 2 IVH – blood has gotten into the ventricle but is not causing it to get signiicantly enlarged
Grade 3 IVH – blood has entered the ventricle and is causing the chamber to grow as fluid that normally drains out is getting blocked by blood from leaving. As fluid (cerebral spinal fluid) continues to be produced, if it has trouble draining out it is like a kitchen sink with the tap turned on and something blocking the drain)
Grade 4 IVH – this is actually a bit different and is blood within the tissues of the brain outside of the ventricles. This is caused by blood flow in the veins of the brain being too slow and then causing vessels to rupture from lack of flow and oxygen.
A grade 3 IVH is shown below with the chambers swelling (black).
What can happen if the bleeding is significant?
It is the Grade 3 and 4 bleeds that we really worry about. The grade 1 bleeds tend to resolve on their own. When we see a bleed you can expect to see a new ultrasound be done in 1-2 weeks to folllow up and make sure it doesn’t get worse. If a grade 3 bleed continues to cause the ventricles to increase in size we worry with time that this may put pressure on the brain and affect the amount of blood flow the brain receives. If this is happening you may hear that we are asking Neurosurgery to see your infant. They will work with us to determine whether your baby needs a drain put into the ventricle to help get rid of the excess fluid. Many times the ventricles as we watch them with additional ultrasounds get smaller with time but some do not and will need this plastic drain put in to allow the brain to have this pressure relieved.
With the Grade 4 bleeds with time the body will absorb this damaged tissue and your baby may be left with a hole in the brain where the injured tissue was. While this sounds frightening the ability of our ultrasounds to predict eventual outcome is not great. Such infants though will generally be followed in a high risk follow up clinic and carefully monitored for their development. If they are found to have any deficits, depending on your location a variety of services may be offered to help optimize the best chance for a good outcome. Such services might include involvement of an occupational therapist or physiotherapist.
Sometime between about 4-6 weeks after birth or in some cases near discharge another ultrasound will be done. This time the team is looking for something different. The risk of fresh bleeding has passed but now we are looking for evidene of a lack of blood supply at some point from the arteries that provide blood supply to the brain. Many weeks after being born if there has been a period of significant impairment of blood flow to the brain we may see evidence of this. The brain has both white and gray matter (tissue). The gray matter is all along the surface of the brain. Underneath though and right next to the ventricles is the white mattter. This white matter is where the injury we are looking for may have occurrred. We call this injury periventricular leukomalacia. This means injury to the white matter. The white matter is where our neurological tissue for motor function travels so in these infants with such injury there can be problems with normal movement in the legs usually, moreso than the arms. Assessments in babies with such injury may find increases in the muscle tone in the NICU. In such cases, referral to a physiotherapist early to teach families how to do stretching exercises as an example will be done. Similarly, positioning devices from an occupational therapist may also be recommended.
In 2015 the Pediatric Endocrine Society (PES) published new recommendations for defining and managing hypoglycaemia in the newborn. A colleague of mine and I discussed the changes and came to the conclusion that the changes suggested were reasonable with some “tweaks”. The PES suggested a change from 2.6 mmol/L (47 mg/dL) at 48 hours of age as a minimum goal glucose to 3.3 mmol/L (60 mg/dL) as the big change in approach. The arguments for this change was largely based on data from normal preterm and term infants achieving the higher levels by 48-72 hours and some neuroendocrine data suggesting physiologically, the body would respond with counter regulatory hormones below 3.3 mmol/L.
As it turned out, we were “early adopters” as we learned in the coming year that no other centre in Canada had paid much attention to the recommendations. The inertia to change was likely centred around a few main arguments.
1. How compelling was the data really that a target of 2.6 and above was a bad idea?
2. Fear! Would using a higher threshold result in many “well newborns” being admitted to NICU for treatment when they were really just experiencing a prolonged period of transitional hypoglycaemia.
3. If its not broken don’t fix it. In other word, people were resistant to change itself after everyone was finally accustomed to algorithms for treatment of hypoglcyemia in their own centres.
What effect did it actually have?
My colleagues along with one of our residents decided to do a before and after retrospective comparison to answer a few questions since we embraced this change. Their answers to what effect the change brought about are interesting and therefore at least a in my opinion worth sharing. If any of you are wondering what effect such change might have in your centre then read on!
Once the protocol was in place we went from arbitrary consults to mandatory so these results are not surprising. What is surprising though is that the median critical plasma glucose was 2.2 mmol/L, with no significant difference pre or post (2.0 mmol/L pre versus 2.6 mmol/L post, P=0.4) Ninety percent of the infants who were hypoglycemic beyond 72 hours of age were so in the first 72 hours. Of these infants, 90% were diagnosed with hyperinsulinemia. What this tells us is that those who are going to go on to have persistent hypoglycemia will demonstrate similar blood sugars whether you use the cutoff of 2.6 or 3.3 mmol/L. You will just catch more that present a little later using the higher thresholds. How would these kids do at home if discharged with true hyperinsulinemia that wasn’t treated? I can only speculate but that can’t be good for the brain…
Now comes the really interesting part!
Of the total infants in the study, thirteen infants or 40% had plasma glucose values of 2.6 to 3.2 mmol/L at the time of consultation after November 2015. Think about that for a moment. None of these infants would have been identified using the old protocol. Nine of these infants went on to require treatment with diazoxide for persistent hyperinsulinemia. All of these infants would have been missed using the old protocol. You might ask at this point “what about the admission rate?”. Curiously an internal audit of our admission rates for hypoglycemia during this period identified a decline in our admission rates. Concurrent with this change we also rolled out the use of dextrose gels so the reduction may have been due to that as one would have expected admission rates to rise otherwise. The other thing you might ask is whether in the end we did the right thing as who says that a plasma blood glucose threshold of 3.3 mmol/L is better than using the tried and true 2.6 mmol/L cutoff?
While I don’t have a definitive answer to give you to that last question, I can leave you with something provocative to chew on. In the sugar babies study the goal glucose threshold for the first 7 days of life was 2.6 mmol/L. This cohort has been followed up and I have written about these studies before in Dextrose gel for hypoglycemia. Safe in the long run? One of the curious findings in this study was in the following table.
Although the majority of the babies in the study had only mild neurosensory impairment detectable using sophisticated testing the question is why should so many have had anything at all? I have often wondered whether the goal of keeping the blood sugar above 2.6 mmol/L as opposed to a higher level of say 3.3 mmol/L may be at play. Time will tell if we begin to see centres adopt the higher thresholds and then follow these children up. I don’t know about you but a child with a blood sugar of 2.7 mmol/L at 5 or 6 days of age would raise my eyebrow. These levels that we have used for some time seem to make sense in the first few days but for discharge something higher seems sensible.
Look around an NICU and you will see many infants living in incubators. All will eventually graduate to a bassinet or crib but the question always is when should that happen? The decision is usually left to nursing but I find myself often asking if a baby can be taken out. My motivation is fairly simple. Parents can more easily see and interact with their baby when they are out of the incubator. Removing the sense of “don’t touch” that exists for babies in the incubators might have the psychological benefit of encouraging more breastfeeding and kangaroo care. Both good things.
Making the leap
For ELBW and VLBW infants humidity is required then of course they need this climate controlled environment. Typically once this is no longer needed units will generally try infants out of the incubator when the temperature in the “house” is reduced to 28 degrees. Still though, it is not uncommon to hear that an infant is “too small”. Where is the threshold though that defines being too small? Past research studies have looked at two points of 1600 vs 1800g for the smallest of infants. One of these studies was a Cochrane review by New K, Flenady V, Davies MW. Transfer of preterm infants for incubator to open cot at lower versus higher body weight. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2011;(9). This concluded that early transition was safe for former ELBWs at the 1600g weight cut off.
Infants in this gestational age range with a birth weight <1600g were randomly assigned to a weaning weight of 1600 or 1800 g. Within 60 to 100 g of weaning weight, the incubator temperature was decreased by 1.0°C to 1.5°C every 24 hours until 28.0°C. Weaning to the crib occurred when axillary temperatures were maintained 36.5°C to 37.4°C for 8 to 12 hours. Clothing and bedcoverings were standardized. The primary outcome was LOS from birth to discharge.
What did they find?
A total of 366 babies were enrolled (187 at 1600g and 179 at 1800g. Baseline characteristics of the two groups revealed no statistical differences. Mean LOPS was a median of 43 days in the lower and 41 days in the higher weight group (P = .12). After transition to a crib weight gain was better in the lower weight group, 13.7 g/kg/day vs 12.8 g/kg/ day (P = .005). Tracking of adverse events such as the incidence of severe hypothermia did not differ between groups. The only real significant difference was a better likelihood of weaning from the incubator in the higher group at 98% success vs 92% on the first attempt. Putting. That in perspective though, a 92% success rate by my standards is high enough to make an attempt worthwhile!
The authors have essentially shown that whether you wean at the higher or lower weight threshold your chances of success are pretty much the same. Curiously, weight gain after weaning was improved which seems counter intuitive. I would have thought that these infants would have to work extra hard metabolically to maintain their temperature and have a lower weight gain but that was not the case. Interestingly, this finding has been shown in another study as well; New K, Flint A, Bogossian F, East C, Davies MW. Transferring preterm infants from incubators to open cots at 1600 g: a multicentre randomised controlled trial. Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed 2012;97:F88-92. Metabolic rate has been shown to increase in these infants but skin fold thickness has been shown to increase as well in infants moved to a crib. How these two things go together is a little beyond me as I would have thought that as metabolic rate increases storage of tissue would slow. Not apparently the case but perhaps just another example of the bodies ability to overcome challenges when put in difficult situations. A case maybe of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?”
The authors do point out that the intervention was unmasked but the standardization of weaning procedure and garments used in the cribs should have overcome that. There were 36% of parents who did not consent to the study so their inclusion could have swayed the results perhaps but the sample size here was large despite that. That the final results agree with findings in ELBW infants suggests that the results are plausible.
What I think this study does though is tell us overall that weaning at a smaller weight is at least alright to try once one is at minimal settings in an incubator. Will this change your units practice? It is something that at least merits discussion.