Large-scale data project to help vulnerable babies

News

Premature babies face a number of potential health threats after they are born. But how can hospitals predict when complications might become dangerous? And are these signs of problems — such as cerebral palsy, autism and developmental delays — that might appear later in life?

A sweeping research collaboration of the Dell Medical School, The University of Texas at Austin and Seton Healthcare Family hopes to answer these questions with a vital tool: data.

A cross-disciplinary team led by David Paydarfar, MD, chair of neurology at Dell Medical School at UT Austin, is using data that already exists from babies in two Seton neonatal intensive care units. Data such as heart rate, oxygen levels, and temperature will be compiled to create a warehouse of vital signs. New monitors are being installed in the NICU to collect the data and send it to the warehouse hosted by the Texas Advanced Computing Center where computers can detect patterns and begin to predict future complications.

“It’s a logical step in using the tools that are available to us in the health care field,” says Mike Minks, chief information officer at Seton. “This is just a matter of using the data we already have in ways that can give these babies the best fighing chance right from their first days.” Seton is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

In the short term, the data can be used to predict when a complication such as sleep apnea might occur — and to raise a flag to hospital staff members so they can administer care to the most vulnerable babies before the situation becomes dangerous.

In the long term, the data can be used to draw a clearer understanding about how early complications affect outcomes later in life.

“A project like this has never been done on this scale before, and that’s part of why we still can’t fully predict how neurological conditions develop over the span of a young person’s life,” Paydarfar said. “We have so many more tools at our disposal now, and it’s critical that we have experts from a variety of disciplines — medicine, engineering and information technology — all invested in helping these children.”

Paydarfar is leading the project. Steve Abrams, MD, chair of pediatrics at Dell Med, is serving as the project’s lead neonatologist. Mike Minks, chief information officer at Seton Healthcare Family, is leading the project’s information technology efforts.