A secure, digital visual diary service is helping parents of newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at a local hospital to feel more connected to their babies at times when they are apart.
Dr Ricky Dippenaar, a neonatologist practising at Netcare Blaauwberg Hospital in the Western Cape, implemented the UK-based vCreate Diaries service at the facility in early 2021, after searching for a solution that could alleviate some of the emotional strain families so often feel when separated from their vulnerable little ones.
“The vCreate Diaries service has proven its value as a communications tool to help minimise separation anxiety for parents and support family centred care,” says Dr Dippenaar.
“There are numerous reasons why parents are not able to remain with their baby in the NICU, such as other children and family members at home who need their care, work commitments and financial constraints, travel challenges for those living far from the hospital, and so on.
“With this system, neonatal nursing staff are able to send parents images and video clips of their newborns along with the updates that they would normally receive in text or telephonically. The platform is secure and patient confidentiality is protected at all times, which was a major factor when identifying the right service for our unit, and in meeting the requirements of South Africa’s stringent POPIA laws,” he adds.
Secure video and photograph messaging technology
vCreate Diaries’ secure video and photograph messaging technology is currently in use in over 80% of neonatal units in the UK and more than 130 units globally.
For the family of little Amilenathi Letheo, who was born at just 26 weeks weighing 580g, the service was a lifeline, as she spent the first 103 days of her life in the Netcare Blaauwberg Hospital NICU.
During this time Amilenathi was largely separated from her parents, as her mother was critically ill and her father who works in Johannesburg was unable to be there in person for the duration of this time.
“Looking back, it was such a rollercoaster for our little family. vCreate gave us that extra support we needed, allowing us to witness Amilenathi’s development and to feel a part of it. The first time she opened her eyes, I got to see it in the pictures that were uploaded to vCreate. I would just sit and look at her while expressing milk for her and I would feel a deep sense of connection. It motivated me to be strong for her,” says Amilenathi’s mother, Phiweyo Mposula.
A sense of reassurance
Liezel Cloete, a midwife by profession, is all too familiar with the importance of close bonding time between parents and newborns but found herself in a similarly difficult position after her baby, Laken, was born at 26 weeks at a low birth weight of 650g. Laken spent 74 days in the hospital’s NICU before being able to go home.
“In the beginning I struggled to accept what had happened. We had battled to conceive, and it had already been such a journey getting to that point. Laken is our first baby and I never imagined that this would be our experience, so when Dr Ricky told me about the visual diaries service it was music to my ears.
“Receiving those updates and pictures of her gave me a sense of reassurance – it was the next best thing to being there myself. I hope it goes viral because it’s something that every parent should have access to when their little one has to stay in hospital,” comments Cloete.
Creating a human connection
Sr Kelly Delaney, a clinical nurse specialist in the Netcare Blaauwberg Hospital NICU, is the vCreate champion for the unit and says that the nursing staff at the hospital have found vCreate provides parents with a more tangible connection with their baby than when they receive an update via phone call or text.
“The ability to share real time visuals with our moms and dads is powerful when it comes to creating a human connection, as there are many parents who cannot be here in person all the time, for various reasons,” she says.
“The nursing staff love using vCreate to connect with the families – it has given us another way to form that bond with them. We have had parents reporting that they sleep better at night once they have seen a new image of their baby and that they have enjoyed being able to show these visuals to other members of the family, who have not yet been able to meet the new addition.”
Family centred and keeping parents in touch with their newborn
Nicole George, the mother of baby Eden who was born at just 31 weeks weighing a little over 1kg, says that leaving the hospital without her child was a terrible experience but that she also needed to get back home to take care of her four year old son Noah.
“The 41 days that Eden spent in the NICU were terribly hard and I felt very torn as a mother, but the staff were amazing and made excellent use of the vCreate system to keep us in touch with Eden’s progress.
“It was also wonderful to be able to show the photographs to Noah who had been expecting his baby sister to come home with us but was now unable to meet her, as children are understandably not allowed in the NICU. It is no surprise that Dr Dippenaar implemented this service – it’s very family centred and forward thinking, as is he,” says George.
Critical for parents to be part of their baby’s early days
Dr Dippenaar notes that it is critical for parents to be part of their baby’s early days and that there are many factors hinging on the formation of that bond as well as the connection between families and treating healthcare staff, such as mothers feeling relaxed enough to produce sufficient milk, clinical decision making between a family and the team, and many others.
“It became clear that a digital solution would be the safest and most effective – no two people are dealing with the same set of challenges, but everyone has a mobile phone. We have found the benefits to be enormous, improving communications and fostering parental relationships, all while protecting private patient information. Because we are dealing with children, it was paramount that we engaged with a safe and secure platform.
“Furthermore, by helping to put parents at ease the service takes some of the emotional pressure off nursing staff and doctors, allowing everyone to focus more on taking care of our little patients. It has also been invaluable to have had an extra layer of support from Alan Abrahams, general manager here at Netcare Blaauwberg Hospital, who has encouraged us and fully embraced the implementation of the service,” says Dr Dippenaar.
“The vCreate platform is fully digital and seamless, running off tablets that we have here in the unit and with the ability to integrate into a wider system. This is a natural evolution that can work side by side with CareOn, the state of the art electronic medical record system that is being implemented at Netcare facilities nationally. It is a service that adds immeasurable value and one that we will be using well into the future,” he adds.