Exclusive human milk (EHM) diets using either mother’s own milk or donor milk plus a human based human milk fortifier have been the subject of many papers over the last few years. Such papers have demonstrated reductions is such outcomes as NEC, length of stay, days of TPN and number of times feedings are held due to feeding intolerance to name just a few outcomes. There is little argument that a diet for a human child composed of human milk makes a great deal of sense. Although we have come to rely on bovine sources of both milk and fortifier when human milk is unavailable I am often reminded that bovine or cow’s milk is for baby cows.
Challenges with using an exclusive human milk diet.
While it makes intuitive sense to strive for an exclusive human milk diet, there are barriers to the same. Low rates of maternal breastfeeding coupled with limited or no exposure to donor breast milk programs are a clear impediment. Even if you have those first two issues minimized through excellent rates of breast milk provision, there remains the issue of whether one has access to a human based fortifier to achieve the “exclusive” human milk diet.
The “exclusive” approach is one that in the perfect world we would all strive for but in times of fiscal constraint there is no question that any and all programs will be questioned from a cost-benefit standpoint. The issue of cost has been addressed previously by Ganapathy et al in their paper Costs of Necrotizing Enterocolitis and Cost-Effectiveness of Exclusively Human Milk-Based Products in Feeding Extremely Premature Infants. The authors were able to demonstrate that choosing an exclusive human milk diet is cost effective in addition to the benefits observed clinically from such a diet. In Canada where direct costs are more difficult to visualize and a reduction in nursing staff per shift brings about the most direct savings, such an argument becomes more difficult to achieve.
Detractors from the EHM diet argue that we have been using bovine fortification from many years and the vast majority of infants regardless of gestational age have little challenge with it. Growth rates of 15-20 g/kg/d are achievable using such fortification so why would you need to treat all patients with an EHM diet?
A Rescue Approach
In our own centre we were faced with these exact questions and developed a rescue approach. The rescue was designed to identify those infants who seemed to have a clear intolerance to bovine fortifier as all of the patients we care for under 1250g receive either mother’s own or donor milk. The approach used was as follows:
A. < 27 weeks 0 days or < 1250 g i. 2 episode of intolerance to HMF ii. Continue for 2 weeks
This month we published our results from using this targeted rescue approach in Winnipeg, Human Based Human Milk Fortifier as Rescue Therapy in Very Low Birth Weight Infants Demonstrating Intolerance to Bovine Based Human Milk Fortifier with Dr. Sandhu being the primary author (who wrote this as a medical student with myself and others. We are thrilled to share our experience and describe the cases we have experienced in detail in the paper. Suffice to say though that we have identified value in such an approach and have now modified our current approach based on this experience to the following protocol for using human derived human milk fortifier in our centre to the current: A. < 27 weeks 0 days or < 1250 g i. 1 episode of intolerance to HMF ii. Continue for 4 weeks B. ≥ 27 week 0 days or ≥ 750g i. 2 episodes of intolerance to HMF ii. Continue for 4 weeks or to 32 weeks 0 days whichever comes sooner
We believe given our current contraints, this approach will reduce the risk of NEC, feeding intolerance and ultimately length of stay while being fiscally prudent in these challenging times. Given the interest at least in Canada with what we have been doing here in Winnipeg and with the publication of our results it seemed like the right time to share this with you. Whether this approach or one that is based on providing human based human milk fortifier to all infants <1250g is a matter of choice for each institution that chooses to use a product such as Prolacta. In no way is this meant to be a promotional piece but rather to provide an option for those centres that would like to use such products to offer an EHM diet but for a variety of reasons have opted not to provide it to all.
I would consider myself fairly open minded when it comes to care in the NICU. I wouldn’t call myself a maverick or careless but I certainly am open to new techniques or technologies that may offer a better level of care for the babies in our unit. When it comes to “non-Western” concepts though such as therapeutic touch, chiropractic manipulations of infants and acupuncture (needle or otherwise) I have generally been a skeptic. I have written about such topics before with the most popular post being Laser acupuncture for neonatal abstinence syndrome. My conclusion there was that I was not a fan of the strategy but perhaps I could be more open to non traditional therapies.
This would appear to be the newest and perhaps strangest (to me at least) approach to pain relief that I have seen. I do love name of this study; the MAGNIFIC trial consisted of a pilot study on the use of auricular magnetic acupuncture to alleviate pain in the NICU from heel lances. The study was published in Acta Paediatrica this month; Magnetic Non-Invasive Acupuncture for Infant Comfort (MAGNIFIC) – A single-blinded randomized controlled pilot trial. The goal here was to measure pain scores using the PIPP scoring system for pain in the neonate before during and after a painful experience (heel lance) in the NICU. Being a pilot study it was small with only 20 needed per arm based on the power calculation to detect a 20% difference in scores. The intervention used small magnets placed at specific locations on the ear of the infant at least two hours before the heel lance was to occur. Before I get into the results, the authors of the study provide references to explain how the therapy works. Looking at the references I have to admit I was not able to obtain complete papers but the evidence is generally it would appear from adult patients. The explanation has to do with the magnetic field increasing blood flow to the area the magnet is applied to and in addition another reference suggests that there are affects the orbitofrontal and limbic regions which then impacts neurohormonal responses as seen in functional MRI. The evidence to support this is I would have thought would be pretty sparse but I was surprised to find a literature review on the subject that looked at 42 studies on the topic. The finding was that 88% of the studies reported a therapeutic effect. The conclusion though of the review was that the quality of the included studies was a bit sketchy for the most part so was not able to find that this should be a recommended therapy.
So what were the results?
Despite my clear skepticism what this study did well was that aside from the magnets, the intervention was the same. Twenty one babies received the magnetic treatments vs 19 placebo. There was a difference in the gestational ages of the babies with the magnet treated infants being about two weeks older (35 vs 33 weeks). What difference that might in and of itself have on the PIPPs scoring I am not sure. The stickers were applied to the ears with and without magnets in a randomized fashion and the nurses instructed to score them using the PIPP scoring system. Interestingly, as per their unit policy all babies received sucrose as well before the intervention of a heel lance so I suppose the information gleaned here would be the use of magnets as an adjunctive treatment. No difference was noted in the two groups before and after the heel lance but during the procedure the magnet treated infants had a difference in means (SD): 5.9 (3.7) v 8.3 (4.7), p=0.04). No differences were found in secondary measures such as HR or saturation and no adverse effects were noted. The authors conclusions were that it was feasible and appears safe and as with most pilot studies warrants further larger studies to verify the results.
Should we run out and buy it?
One of the issues I have with the study is that in the introduction they mention that this treatment might be useful where kangaroo care (KC) is not such as a critically ill infant. Having placed infants who are quite sick in KC and watched wonderful stability arise I am not sure if the unit in question under utilizes this important modality for comfort.
The second and perhaps biggest issue I have here is that although the primary outcome was reached it does seem that there was some fishing going on here. By that I mean there were three PIPP scores examined (before, during and after) and one barely reached statistical significance. My hunch is that indeed this was reached by chance rather than it being a real difference.
The last concern is that while the intervention was done in a blinded and randomized fashion, the evidence supporting the use of this in the first place is not strong. Taking this into account and adding the previous concern in as well and I have strong doubts that this is indeed “for real”. I doubt this will be the last we will hear about it and while my skepticism continues I have to admit if a larger study is produced I will be willing and interested to read it.
Look around you. Technology is increasingly becoming pervasive in our everyday lives both at home and at work. The promise of technology in the home is to make our lives easier. Automating tasks such as when the lights turn on or what music plays while you eat dinner (all scripted) are offered by several competitors. In the workplace, technology offers hopes of reducing medical error and thereby enhancing safety and accuracy of patient care. The electronic health record while being a nuisance to some does offer protection against incorrect order writing since the algorithms embedded in the software warn you any time you stray. What follows is a bit of a story if you will of an emerging technology that has caught my eye and starts like many tales as a creative idea for one purpose that may actually have benefits in other situations.
In 2012 students in Australia rose to the challenge and designed a digital stethoscope that could be paired with a smartphone. The stethoscope was able to send the audio it was receiving to the smartphone for analysis and provide an interpretation. The goal here was to help diagnose childhood pneumonia with a stethoscope that would be affordable to the masses, even “Dr. Mom” as the following video documents. Imagine before calling your health line in your city having this $20 tool in your hands that had already told you your child had breath sounds compatible with pneumonia. Might help with moving you up the triage queue in your local emergency department.
Shifting the goal to helping with newborns
Of course breath sounds are not the only audio captured in a stethoscope. Heart sounds are captured as well and the speed of the beats could offer another method of confirming the heart is actually beating. Now we have ECG, pulse oximetry, auscultation and palpation of the umbilical stump to utilize as well so why do you need another tool? It comes down to accuracy. When our own heart rates are running high, how confident are we in what we feel at the stump (is that our own pulse we are feeling?). In a review on measurement of HR by Phillipos E et al from Edmonton, Alberta, auscultation was found to take an average of 17 seconds to produce a number and in 1/3 of situations was incorrect. The error in many cases would have led to changes in management during resuscitation. Palpation of the umbilical cord is far worse. In one study “cord pulsations were impalpable at the time of assessment in 5 (19%) infants, and clinical assessment underestimated the ECG HR with a mean (SD) difference between auscultation and palpation and ECG HR of − 14 (21) and − 21 (21) beats min –1″. In another study, 55% of the time providers were incorrect when they thought the HR was under 100 BPM. This leaves the door open for something else. Might that something be the digital stethoscope?
How does the digital stethoscope fare?
Kevac AC et al decided to look at the use of the Stethocloud to measure HR after birth in infants >26 weeks gestational age at birth. The opted to use the ECG leads as the gold standard which arguably is the most accurate method we have for detecting HR. The good news was that the time to signal acquisition was pretty impressive. The median time to first heart rate with the stethoscope was 2 secs (IQR 1-7 seconds). In comparison the time for a pulse oximeter to pick up HR is variable but may be as long as one minute. In low perfusion states it may be even longer or unable to pick up a good signal. The bad news was the accuracy as shown in the Bland Altman plot. The tendency of the stethoscope was to underestimate the EKG HR by about 7 BPM. Two standard deviations though had it underestimate by almost 60 BPM or overestimate by about 50 BPM. For the purposes of resuscitation, this range is far to great. The mean is acceptable but the precision around that mean is to wide. The other issue noted was the frequent missing data from loss of contact with the patient. Could you imagine for example having a baby who has a heart rate of 50 by the stethoscope but by EKG 100? Big difference in approach, especially if you didn’t have EKG leads on to confirm. The authors note that the accuracy is not sufficient and felt that an improvement in the software algorithms might help.
Another go at it
So as suggested, the same group after having a new version with improved software decided to go at it again. This time Gaertner VD et al restricted the study to term infants. Forty four infants went through the same process again with the stethoscope output being compared to EKG lead results. This time around the results are far more impressive. There was virtually no difference between the ECG and the stethoscope with a 95% confidence interval as shown in the graphs with A being for all recordings and B being those without crying (which would interfere with the acquiring of HR). A maximal difference of +/- 18 BPM for all infants is better than what one gets with auscultation or palpation in terms of accuracy and let’s not forget the 2 second acquisition time!
Should you buy one?
I think this story is evolving and it wouldn’t surprise me if we do see something like this in our future. It certainly removes the element of human error from measuring. It is faster to get a signal than even the time it takes to get your leads on. Where I think it may have a role though is for the patient who has truly no pulse. In such a case you can have an EKG HR but the patient could be in pulseless electrical activity. Typically in this case people struggle to feel a pulse with the accuracy being poor in such situations. Using a device that relies on an actual heart contraction to make a sound provides the team with real information. Concurrent with this technology is also the rise of point of care ultrasound which could look at actual cardiac contractions but this requires training that makes it less generalizable. Putting a stethoscope on a chest is something we all learn to do regardless of our training background.
I think they could be on to something here but perhaps a little more evidence and in particular a study in the preterm infant would be helpful to demonstrate similar accuracy.
I don’t envy our nurses who care for babies withdrawing from various opiates and other substances. These assignments are definitely a challenge and require a great deal of patience and depending on the shrillness of an infant’s cry a good set of earplugs. Nonetheless we do our best with these infants to keep them calm and avoid as much stimulation as we can as we attempt to minimize the excitability of their nervous system.
Over 40 years ago the Finnegan Neonatal Abstinence scoring system was developed to assist medical teams by providing as objective a system as possible to compare one infant to another and determine when and if a patient should be treated pharmacologically. Unfortunately there is a problem inherent with this scoring system. It is the same problem that exists when you don’t have a blinded research trial. Imagine you are caring for an infant and you were given no history about drug exposure. How might you score a patient like that compared to one in which you are told has been exposed to illicit substances? Your senses are heightened and moreover if you were told this baby is “withdrawing terribly” or “is awful at night” you are biased. How are you likely to score such a patient when they are “on the edge” of being counted as a 1 or a 0 in a category? I bet in many cases, especially if you haven’t taken care of many such patients you err on the side of caution and score them on the high side. It is human nature. When the possible outcome of failing to recognize a withdrawing patient is a seizure, no one wants to be on when it happens having their scoring questioned. Have a look at the scoring tool though.
There is a lot of stuff in there to check off! What if it could be simpler?
The ESC Tool
In early May, news began to break of an abstract being presented at the Pediatric Academic Society meeting. The news story from the AAP can be found here. The ESC tool is a three question tool used to assess whether an infant requires treatment for withdrawal.
E – Eat (is an infant is able to eat 1 or more ounce per feeding)
S – Sleeping (sleep for an hour or longer undisturbed)
C – Console (Be consoled in 10 minutes or less.)
If all three criteria are met, the patient does not need treatment. If one or more criteria are not met the housestaff are notified and first non-pharmacologic and then pharmacologic means are employed if necessary to control symptoms.
The authors did something quite interesting. They looked at 50 patients with 201 hospital days with prenatal exposures to opiates and applied the ESC criteria to guide treatment. Concurrently they captured the Finnegan scores but did not use them to guide treatment.
The findings I hope you will agree are quite interesting!
“FNASS scores indicated starting morphine in 30 infants (60%). Morphine was actually started on only 6 patients (12%) (p< 0.0001) based on the ESC approach. The FNASS led protocol directed initiating or increasing meds on 24.6% of days compared to 2.7% of days using the ESC approach (p< 0.0001). The FNASS approach directed that morphine was either not started or decreased on 65.8% of days compared with 94.4% of days using the ESC approach (p< 0.0001). There were no readmissions or reported adverse events.
Pretty amazing but…
The ESC approach greatly reduced the need for treatment and as the authors state there were no readmissions or reported adverse events. What we don’t know and will be needed I suspect before anyone will adopt this strategy (which I have to say again is so much simpler that current approaches) is how these children do in the long run. If the system is undertreating withdrawal, could we see downstream impacts of a “kinder and gentler” approach? One outcome that will be reported soon in the next month is length of stay. I am eagerly awaiting further results as I for one think that a simpler approach to these patients may be just what the doctor ordered. I think the nurses might thank us as well but we will see just how appropriate it is!
The Abstract reporting these findings can be found below
If there is one thing that keeps coming back as a lesson again and again in life it is the importance of communication. Whether it be in the home or at work, too many of our “problems” in the workplace come down to whether or not our teams talk to one another effectively.
A tremendous source of stress of course is the unknown. When a baby is born in the field we can only rely on the information being presented to us via telephone contact. In the melee that occurs on arrival of a potentially sick patient, details can be missed.
The following video illustrates such a situation and I believe aptly provides a good example of how to communicate in such a way that the stress of the situation is relieved. If we can all strive to slow things down just a little we may find that communication eliminates much of the tension in such a situation.
If you are looking to “slow” down your life and improve things such as communication style you may want to have a look at the book “In Praise of Slow” as we head into the weekend. It’s all about slowing things down to actually improve efficiency. The world is moving pretty quickly these days and couldn’t we all do with a little more efficiency and less wasted time? In Neonatology we are confronted with surprises every day, often with little notice. If we can slow things down and pass on the needed information to the right people at the right time we will help to reduce errors if we can just get it right the first time!
As you can tell I am a big fan of simulation in helping to create high functioning teams! More of these videos can be accessed on my Youtube channel at
I have often said that if this came to pass as a mandatory requirement that I would make an announcement shortly thereafter that I was moving on to another career. I think people thought I was kidding but I can put in writing for all to see that I am serious! The subject has been discussed for some time as I can recall such talks with colleagues both in my current position and in other centres. The gist of the argument for staying in-house is that continuity is improved over that period and efficiency gained by avoiding handovers twice a day . How many times have you heard at signover that extubation will be considered for the following morning or to keep the status quo for another issue such as feeding until the next day. No doubt this is influenced by a new set of eyes being in the unit and a change in approach to being one of “putting out fires” overnight. The question then is whether having one Neonatologist there for 24 hours leads to better consistency and with it better outcomes. With respect to PICUs the AAP has previously recommended that 24 hour in-house coverage by an intensivist be the standard so should Neonatology follow suit?
A Tale of Two Periods
My friends in Calgary, Alberta underwent a change in practice in 2001 in which they transitioned from having an in-house model of Neonatologist coverage for 24 hours a day to one similar to our own centres where the Neonatologist after handover late afternoon could take call from home. An article hot off the presses entitled Twenty-Four hour in-house neonatologist coverage and long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes of preterm infants seeks to help answer this question. The team undertook a retrospective analysis of 387 infants born at < 28 weeks gestational age during the periods of 1998-2000 (24 hour period, N=179 infants) vs 2002 – 2004 (day coverage, N= 208 infants) with the goal of looking at the big picture being follow-up for developmental outcome at 3 years. This is an important outcome as one can look at lots of short term outcomes (which they also did) but in the end what matters most is whether the infants survive and if they do are they any different in the long term.
As with any such study it is important to look at whether the infants in the two periods are comparable in terms of risk factors for adverse outcome. Some differences do exist that are worth noting.
Increased risk factors in the 24 hour group
Smaller birthweight (875 vs 922 g)
Confirmed sepsis (23% vs 14%)
Postnatal steroids (45% vs 8%) – but duration of ventilation longer in the day coverage group likely due to less postnatal steroids ( 31 vs 21 days)
All of these factors would predict a worse outcome for these infants but in the end for the primary outcome of neurodevelopmental impairment there was no difference. Even after controlling for postnatal steroids, birth weight, sex and 5 minute apgar score there was still no difference.
What might this mean?
Looking at this with a glass is half full view one might say that with all of the factors above predicting worse outcome for infants, the fact that the groups are not different in outcome may mean that the 24 hour model does indeed confer a benefit. Maybe having a Neonatologist around the clock means that care is made that much better to offset the effect of these other risk factors? On the other hand another explanation could also be that the reason there is no difference is that the sample just isn’t big enough to show a difference. In other words the size of the study might be underpowered to find a difference in developmental outcome.
One of the conclusions in this study is that the presence of a Neonatologist around the clock may have led to earlier extubation and account for the nearly 10 day difference in duration of ventilation. While I would love to believe that for personal reasons I don’t think we can ignore the fact that in the earlier epoch almost 50% of the babies received postnatal steroids compared to 8% in the later period. Postnatal steroids work and they do so by helping us get babies off ventilators. It is hard to ignore that point although I woudl like to take credit for such an achievement.
For now it would appear that I don’t feel compelled to stay overnight in the hospital unless it is necessary due to patient condition necessitating me having my eye on the patient. I am not sure where our field will go in the future but for now I don’t see the evidence being there for a change in practice. With that I will retire to my bedroom while I am on call and get some rest (I hope).