Devices & Technology

New Technology Helps Predict Changes in Conditions of NICU Infants

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By Melissa Wirkus, associate editor

Through a partnership with IBM and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UIOT), researchers have developed new computer software to help health care professionals recognize and predict changes in the conditions of premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Lead researcher of the project, Dr. Carolyn McGregor, UOIT associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Health Informatics, said her team has been using IBM computer software to facilitate research that will ultimately lead physicians and nurses to recognize changes in a neonate’s condition faster and earlier than ever before.

Researchers have developed new computer software to help health care professionals predict changes in the conditions of premature babies in the NICU.

“Through some early research we have been doing, we believe we can utilize the data we have collected to assist medical staff to support prediction and diagnosis of sepsis and other conditions in premature babies,” McGregor said. “We use advance computing algorithms to provide vital information on the neonates.”

Prior to these research projects and developments, health care professionals had to manually read and interpret biomedical data from tests, monitors and other mechanisms to recognize a potentially dangerous change in an infant’s condition. Now, McGregor’s research combined with the IBM software will help all medical staff to recognize a change in a baby’s condition before it becomes life threatening.

The software ingests a constant stream of biomedical data, such as heart rate and respiration, along with environmental data gathered from advanced sensors and more traditional monitoring equipment on and around the babies, according to a release provided by IBM.

According to IBM, the researchers will also use the software to apply findings from Dr. McGregor's body of research to help make ‘sense’ of the data and, in near-real-time, feed back the resulting analysis to health care professionals so they can predict potential changes in an infant's condition with greater accuracy and intervene more quickly.

McGregor said this research is extremely important for premature babies because many of the infections and diseases they acquire can be treated quickly and easily if they are detected in a timely manner.

“Detecting conditions early on is extremely important,” she said. “When you detect something early on it has less time in the body and will reduce recovery time. It also reduces morbidity rates and health care costs.”

Currently, there is no technology or research that compares to the results and advances this research will provide to medical staff working in the NICU. Right now, the technology is being tested at two hospitals in Canada and one in Australia, McGregor said.

In addition to potentially reducing health care costs for premature infants, this project will also help ease the workload of the health care professionals who monitor NICU babies.

“I think one key thing to this project is, before, there was such an overload of data,” McGregor said. “The babies are attached to such a range of devices and it is all manual reading. We have an enormous opportunity to change the way of thinking when it comes to these patients.”

Although they are still in the research and testing stages, McGregor estimates that doctors will be able to predict the onset of about six or seven conditions that could impact an infant’s mortality if left untreated or unnoticed.

“I think it will free up a lot of time to analyze biomedical data,” McGregor said. “We now have the consistent ability to track behaviors that could be harmful to these fragile infants.”

The IBM computer software utilized by McGregor and her team was awarded to them as part of IBM’s “First-of-a-Kind” program to bring innovative research and technology to the marketplace.

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