Keeping Families Connected: Neonatal Intensive Care Webcams

Unless you’ve ever had a newborn who needed specialized support, you may not realize that the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Penn Highlands DuBois is the only NICU within a 100-mile radius. Known as a level 3 NICU (whose designation means the unit can care for newborns who are acutely ill, premature, or who need advanced ventilator therapy), Penn Highlands transports neonatal patients in by ground and air from the Tri-County region and as far as Clarion County, Indiana, Armstrong County, and Potter County, including Bradford.

As such, Penn Highlands NICU director Suzanne McCullough, RN, explains that some families have an understandably tough time separating from their newborn when the baby has to stay. “We have a lot of families who have transportation issues,” McCullough says. “Getting here can be sporadic for them. It makes it difficult.”

That’s why in 2019, the Penn Highlands Healthcare Fund Development team saw an opportunity to help families stay connected through the power of technology. The Fund Development department had recently learned about a crib-side web camera system called NICVIEW, from the medical equipment and software company, Natus.

Natus states that the 24-hour NICVIEW video streaming service on demand can “reduce the distress and anxiety mothers can feel at being separated from a newborn.” Also, by observing their newborn’s routine in the NICU, parents may adapt their own routine to create a smooth transition to life at home when the infant is discharged from the hospital. “For first-time parents especially, to be away from the baby just wakes you up wondering and worrying: ‘Is my baby ok?’” McCullough explains. “If they can log on and see their baby, it potentially could give comfort to the parents.”

Turning to contacts at major foundations, Penn Highlands Fund Development, led by system director Karin Pfingstler, was able to secure funding for the NICVIEW web cameras through grants. The first, for $7,500, came from the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Mid-Penn Region, Inc., based in Hollidaysburg. Encouraged by this generosity, Fund Development was also aware of the NICU’s volume: an average of 300 babies admitted per year with the average patient staying eight to 10 days. Knowing this, Pfingstler and her team set out to pursue more support. “We knew that PNC in particular wants to support programs that deal with children from infancy to age five,” Pfingstler says. “We believed that with our NICU being one of the few in the area, this could be something they might be interested in.”

In turn, PNC came through with a $20,000 grant that, when combined with the donation from Ronald McDonald House, would facilitate the purchase of eight NICVIEW cameras. “When we approached Ronald McDonald House and PNC,” Pfingstler says, “this was an undeniable piece of technology that has such a well-rounded application. It was hard to refuse the project.”

After more than a year in progress, the NICVIEW cameras were installed last week. “What I learned from Sue when we first had this conversation is that when a patient is separated from their newborn infant, trying to resume some sense of normalcy is challenging,” Pfingstler says. “This device allows a new mother some sense of connectivity, even though she isn't present.” McCullough adds that in the time of COVID-19 when visitation inside the NICU is limited to parents-only to protect the babies’ immune systems, the NICVIEW cameras enable parents, grandparents and other loved ones “to see progress before they get home,” says McCullough, who will soon be a first-time grandmother herself. “That’s going to be so important.”

McCullough highlights an added benefit that the layperson might not think of. With a capacity to care for 16 tiny patients at a time, the Penn Highlands NICU staff has plenty on their plate. “I think the most helpful part for staff is that parents can actually see that their baby is well cared for and comfortable, and that we're taking physical care of their baby,” McCullough says. “I'm hoping that for those reasons, it's a win-win for parents.”

The Penn Highlands NICU staff will print unique encrypted login credentials that only one party, the child’s parent(s), will receive. NICVIEW is private and secure, so no one will gain access to view a baby unless the parent shares the credentials with them. Viewers have the opportunity to take a screenshot of the child, and eventually, explains McCullough, they hope to track the geographical location of all the loved ones who have logged in to view the baby. “In coming months, we’ll be able to print out a map of everywhere the loved ones live. Then we’ll post it so we can actually see the reach of how far some of these families are.”

Pfingstler says the Penn Highlands NICU is a particular area of interest for some independent donors. With donations, they hope to one day add features like a nutrition room for preparing and storing breast milk and formula, greater storage, and private spaces for education and consultation between parents and their healthcare providers.

To learn more about the Penn Highlands Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, please visit /NICU.