Doctors Create an iPad Program to Help NICU Babies Get Home Faster

Jeffrey and Brooke Vergales wanted to help parents care for their babies at home

Photo: UVA Children's Hospital

For years, sick babies at the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital would spend days, weeks and even months in the heavily-monitored, technology-filled neonatal intensive care unit, only to eventually go home with little more than old-school binders for their parents to diligently take notes on their health with a pen and paper.

“It was kind of archaic how we did it. We would send the parents home with these binders and ask them to write things down and call us days and weeks later with some of the data. These were high-risk children, and we have them in the hospital hooked up to all of these monitors and then we send them home with a pen and paper,” Jeffrey Vergales, a pediatric cardiologist at UVA, tells PEOPLE. “We would go back 100 years in technology.”

The system also meant that parents could not take their children home until they were almost fully healthy, because they would be too out of touch with the doctors. That annoyed both the doctors, who had a crowded NICU that could be filled by new patients, and the parents, who just wanted to bring their babies home.

“We always tell parents that their kids need to be able to do three things to go home: they have to be able to feed by mouth or they have to get a [feeding] tube, which is a surgically placed tube into their stomach, they need to be breathing on their own and they need to be at a stable temperature,” Brooke Vergales, a NICU pediatrician and Jeffrey’s wife, says. “I was frustrated because kids would be close to going home, and all they needed from us was feeding them, writing down how much they ate and weighing them. I was like, parents can do this at home.”

Brooke Vergales (right) in the UVA Children’s Hospital NICU. UVA Children's Hospital

And many of these parents were driving hours from all over Virginia to come to UVA Children’s Hospital in Charlottesville just to see their baby, or had to stay in temporary family housing while they waited for their child to be released, adding stress.

Jeffrey and Brooke knew that there had to be a better way. Jeffrey reached out to a former coworker now with Locus Health, a digital health company, to design an Apple iPad app that would allow parents to do everything they would at the hospital — monitor their feedings, record their weight — from the comfort of their home. And the app, which is customized for each patient, seamlessly transmits the data to the their medical records, where doctors can get immediate updates on the babies’ health.

From Apple: Enabling Neonatal Care at Home with UVA

The program started in Jeffrey’s cardiac unit in March 2016, and within the last year, expanded to Brooke’s NICU. Jeffrey was initially worried about how parents would react to the program, but it’s been a huge success.

“I thought that we would create a bunch of anxiety among parents and it was the complete opposite. They felt more connected to their kids,” he says.

And Brooke has sent 30 babies home with their parents using the program with no issues.

“None of them have had any adverse outcomes,” she says. “They haven’t been admitted back to the hospital. And all of them have successfully transitioned to either eating all their food by mouth, or they have gotten a surgically-placed tube.”

Parents video chatting with doctors at UVA Children’s Hospital. UVA Children's Hospital

Though some parents were hesitant at first, they’ve since welcomed the system.

“Families love it,” Brooke says. “The very first question a parent asks when the kid goes into the NICU is, ‘When can my baby come home?’ These parents are motivated. They want to take their baby home. Now they’re able to do that and someone at the hospital is still checking on them every day as if they were still there.”

The app has since expanded to 15 other major children’s hospitals across the country, and the Vergales and Locus Health hope to keep it going to even more. They’re also working on extending the program to different types of patients in need, beginning with transplant kids, and they hope to figure out a way to make it work for people with chronic health problems.

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