June 13, 2017

Digital health: How tech is helping save premature babies in India

By ITU News

The five-day old baby weighs just 1.5 kilograms — too small to breathe on her own. She is still in critical condition, but doctors at Kalawati Hospital in Rewari, India, hope she will be home in a few days.

Next door, machines whir around a much smaller premature baby. Sadly, it is unlikely she will be reunited with her parents, the doctors say.

Complications from pre-term births are a leading cause of death among children under 5 years old globally, and India has the highest number of preterm births in the world, with some 3.5 million babies born too early annually.

On average, one to two babies are admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Kalawati Hospital every day. At this rural hospital, the survival rate of preterm babies is roughly 80%, but for babies between 1 kg and 1.5 kg, an average of 50 to 60% survive.

However, Dr Gautam Yadav, Consultant Pediatrician at Kalawati Hospital, is confident that a new platform, the Integrated Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (iNICU), can help save the lives of some of these babies.

How the iNICU platform works

iNICU is a “combination of all the buzzwords which are in the market, like IoT, cloud, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence — to save a baby,” jokes biomedical engineer Harpreet Singh who developed the real-time data platform with his wife, computer scientist Ravneet Kaur.

iNICU collects medical data so that it can be easily shared with medical professionals. The platform has two key components: the Integrated Child Health Record (ICHR) application, and the iNICU platform. The ICHR application supports the digitization of medical information which is largely absent in India, by allowing doctors and nurses to input vital calculations such as weight, calories, nutrition and medication.

“In bigger hospitals where data is already digitized, the second step is extracting the device data, saving time and effort of doctors and nurses, which will help them to make quick decisions for timely intervention to prevent any infection,” Kaur said.

“Unless you have data, you can’t make a change in this society,” Singh said.

Driving the change to save more lives

For Singh and Kaur, driving this change is personal: the couple lost a child after Kaur delivered premature twins in 2010.

“I remember when we were doing the pilot test for our product in different hospitals. It was very difficult for me to sit in that environment because of the noises,” Kaur told ITU News.

“All my memories were freshening up… For the parents who have been through the same painful journey, this thing can help them improve the life of a child, and the survival rate of a child. The mission is to reduce mortality.” – Ravneet Kaur, computer scientist.

Singh and Kaur use their son’s visits to the pediatrician to inform the development of the product.

Singh explained that the Integrated Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (iNICU) platform was built for both NICU and post-NICU environments. “We help parents make the right informed choices from what is happening with their baby. As parents we didn’t have the data before, and were not informed of the issues that were happening with our child. We still have grey areas, even [now] when he is six. We want to leverage technology to fill that gap.”

And that’s exactly what they are doing.

By linking vital statistical outputs of various medical devices, the iNICU platform also improves clinical care time. This information is then used to predict the onset of diseases and infection.

“The specialist in the game is the doctor. We are servants to helping him make the right clinical decision,” Singh said.

Filling a vital need, ’it fits like a glove’

For Dr Yadav, the platform helps fill a vital need. “There is a misconception that poorer settings can do with poorer technology,” he says. “Actually, the poorer a setting, the better technology you need because you have to fill up all those gaps… Medical errors will be reduced… In a resource-limited setting where you have poor record keeping, and poor monitoring of a patient, if a systematic thing like this comes in, it will definitely save lives.” Yadav is now a champion of the technology. “It is a great aid customized for the needs of a neonate, which most systems are not, and it fits like a glove!”

There are 26 hospital accounts on the ICHR application, including in Mumbai and Delhi, and iNICU is live in three hospitals, with additional orders placed.

“There is not one single solution parallel to iNICU available on the Indian market,” Kaur noted. “Solutions are available in Australia, the United States and China, but there’s no solution in India which is fixing this problem.”

Singh and Kaur rely on the Kalawati Hospital to help them improve their product, because of the difficult conditions.

“Every new application we try … actually gets vetted first by this hospital because it is the most difficult environment for us,” Singh said.

But babies around the world require neonatal care. Could their solutions work elsewhere? “I don’t think we will be limited to India, we want to go global,” he said. “Good engineering, good people, and a good ecosystem is not limited to one geography.”

By Lucy Spencer (@inquisitivelucy), ITU News

© All Photos: Julie Marchand/ITU News

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Digital health: How tech is helping save premature babies in India

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