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New hope for newborn babies requiring resuscitation

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    A blog discussing new developments in medical science relating to babies who require resuscitation at birth and giving increased hope of their survival.

    By Jessica Watson

As medical lawyers, I and my colleagues in the Clinical Negligence Team have a great interest in medical advancement and development.  In the course of our work, representing patients who have suffered injury due to substandard medical treatment, we constantly support the development of better practices and safety measures to protect patients.

This is especially true in relation to those who are particularly vulnerable, such as newborn babies. As an Ambassador for the charity Action Medical Research for Children, I personally have closely followed scientific developments in relation to the resuscitation of newborn babies.

The first thing a new parent listens for is the first cry of their baby, but what if that cry does not come?

The issue

World Health Organisation statistics confirm that, worldwide, of the 136 million babies born per year, around 10 million require some form of resuscitation.

Although resuscitation is more common in premature births, babies who are born at full term can also require life-saving resuscitation.

When a baby is in its mother’s womb its lungs are filled with fluid. Upon being born a baby must adapt, sometimes within a matter of minutes, from getting the oxygen it needs to survive from their mother, to being thrust in to the world and having to breathe for the first time. This transition, from fluid filled lungs to air filled lungs, is of course complex and there is a risk of complications.

As with all medical emergencies, time is of utmost importance following the birth of a baby who is not breathing. The longer a baby is not breathing the more likely it is that they will suffer brain damage or that they will die.

Current Practice

A baby’s heart rate is the best way to measure whether the resuscitation efforts of the doctors and midwives are effective. In order to monitor a baby’s heart rate, resuscitation is stopped every 30 seconds so that the baby’s heart rate can be checked with a stethoscope.

This method does not provide a continuous heart rate measure and so resuscitation is constantly interrupted and delayed, which can be fatal to the oxygen-starved baby.

In addition to delaying resuscitation due to pauses, this current process is open to human error and sudden problems may go undetected.

New developments

In 2008 Action Medical Research for Children provided vital funding to a two-year project carried out at The University of Nottingham. The University’s School of Medicine and School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering teamed up to develop and test Heartlight.

Heartlight is a tiny, ‘hands-free’ electronic heart rate sensor which sits on a baby’s head. The Heartlight model was inspired by helmets worn by coal miners to see their way ‘hands-free’ in the dark.

The Heartlight sensor shows when there is a pulse movement which allows doctors to calculate the baby’s heart rate. This means that continual resuscitation can take place, due to the fact that pauses are not needed to monitor the baby’s heart rate.

It is hoped that this will subsequently reduce the risk of long-term damage and potentially improve the outcome for the baby and their families.

Potential benefits of Heartlight include:

– Improved resuscitation;
– Reduced neonatal mortality;
– Prevention of long-term brain damage;
– Reduced admissions to neonatal Intensive Care Unit

So far, thanks to vital funding, Heartlight has been trialled with over 200 babies. Trials have shown that Heartlight is both reliable and accurate. Additionally it can be set up in a matter of seconds and the first reading can be given within 5 seconds!

The Future

In mid-2014 an official company, Heartlight Systems Ltd, was set up and is now working towards making Heartlight a commercially viable product. The team hope to make Heartlight widely available and anticipate that it will be used in hospitals by 2017.

Future possibilities for this life changing new technology include the potential for the use of the sensor to detect breathing rates and other variables in new-borns. There is also scope to develop the sensor so that other products can be developed such as wrist bands.

Our experience

Here at the Clinical Negligence Team we know only too well that every second counts in the resuscitation of a newborn baby. We work with families for whom the outcome sadly has not been positive. Our specialist team works with parents who have lost their child as a result of intrapartum complications, or clients who have suffered Cerebral Palsy as a result of brain damage caused by lack of oxygen.  Any developments which can help to reduce the numbers of babies who are injured during the course of their birth or subsequently in the neonatal periods are welcome and I shall continue to follow these developments with great interest.

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