By Michaela Gibson Morris
NEW ALBANY – Tupelo neonatologist Dr. Bryan Darling can virtually roam the halls of Baptist Memorial Hospital-Union County without leaving North Mississippi Medical Center Women’s Hospital.
The two hospitals rolled out a partnership Friday that brings the neonatologists into the New Albany hospital via a robot to consult and facilitate transfers for critically ill newborns to the neonatal intensive care in Tupelo.
“I’ve had about four consults, and I haven’t run over any toes yet,” said Darling, who can have face-to-face conversations via a video monitor mounted on top of the robot.
New Albany pediatrician Dr. Jim Googe said the robot program – the first neonatal telemedicine initiative between unaffiliated hospitals in Mississippi – builds on an already strong relationship between the newborn programs. Previously, Googe and the other New Albany pediatricians would consult over the phone if they had a critically ill newborn.
“It’s adequate, but it’s not actually laying eyes on the patient,” said Googe, who serves as the chairman of pediatrics for the hospital.
With help from the nursing staff and attachments on the robot, Darling can observe the newborns, listen to heart and lungs and discuss medical images with physicians and nurses. Most importantly, he can use the robot to visit with the parents of babies who are being transferred. Darling has even used the robot to update the parents after the baby has arrived in the Tupelo NICU so they can see their baby settled in.
“That’s a big benefit,” said Darling, noting that at the time many babies have to be transferred, moms are still recovering from giving birth.
Darling has been working on telemedicine projects for years, and the two hospitals began working on this program about four years ago. Baptist Memorial-Union County is the largest referral center for the NMMC neonatal intensive care. Out of more than 1,200 births last year, the New Albany hospital consulted on about 100 newborn cases and transferred 45 babies.
Baptist Memorial already uses a telemedicine program to connect its emergency room with neurologists in Memphis to be able to quickly treat stroke patients, but the neonatal robot is a step beyond that, said hospital chief executive Walter Grace.
“It has been an adjustment for the staff,” said Grace, joking that he hasn’t figured out how to shake hands with Darling through the armless robot yet.
The InTouch Health robot is an advance beyond other telemedicine platforms because it’s always ready to go, Darling said. NMMC Women’s is covering the cost of the $3,000 a month lease for the equipment and support for three years.
“We would love to replicate it,” Darling said, but funding will be an issue for other sites.