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How big data is saving small babies

How big data is saving small babies

Daniel Vijlbrief, a pediatrician at UMC Utrecht (Dutch University Hospital), taps analytics to help save lives of preterm infants

ID 118775847 © Mikosok | Dreamstime.com

ID 118775847 © Mikosok | Dreamstime.com

The data is all numbers and letters, but in the end, it concerns a preterm baby

Dr Daniel Vijlbrief

Dr Daniel Vijlbrief takes care of the most vulnerable infants - preterm babies.

Some of these infants, he explains, can stay in the wards up to six months.

“We were harvesting large amounts of data about these infants everyday,” shares Vijlbrief, pediatrician-neonatologist at UMC Utrecht (Dutch University Hospital).

“Three years ago, we thought there might be more to the information that we have gathered over the years. We wanted to know what the information was and how we can make it of value to our patients.

He adds, “But after we explored the amount of data we had and the complexity of that data, we realised this was not possible for us to do ourselves.”

“We needed a partner to help explore the data and bring smart solutions to the wards,” says Vijlbrief

“Can we identify problems at an earlier stage and is it possible to proactively treat infants to give them a better future? At the end, future is the key.”

This, he explains, is how he came into applied data analytics.

Today, he is is working on the possibilities of using big data in neonatal medicine through the ‘Big Data for Small Babies’ project.

Their goal is to build an early warning system and decision support tool for doctors and nurses on late-onset neonatal sepsis, one of the major complications these infants face.

The hospital approached SAS to help them with the applied data analytics project.

The idea, he says, is to make a place in the hospital available for data scientists to work in close cooperation with clinicians, doctors, nurses, and those in close contact with patients and parents to come up with clinical applicable solutions.

“We realised we were very reactive,” admits Vijlbrief. “We were addressing the problem as they occurred and not at the moment, when it was possible to identify the problem.”

“We looked at the charts of the babies and we identified there were possibilities to identify sepsis at an earlier stage,” he explains.

“We want to bring the data analytics to the wards to help nurses and doctors working side by side with the patients, to give them the best possible help in doing their job.”

Photo by Divina Paredes
Photo by Divina Paredes

How can we build a better future for these babies everyday?

Dr Daniel Vijlbrief

By bringing smart solutions to our wards, Vijlbrief tells CIO New Zealand that they can prevent complications from happening and bring the babies to a better standard and help them to become better adults.

He points to the upside of using analytics and artificial intelligence in this type of environment; while noting there is a tremendous increase in healthcare costs in probably every country in the world.

There is also  increased complexity in care, so a lot of machines and monitoring systems are incorporated into the work to help the clinicians do their jobs better.

“We have an enormous shortage of nurses and there might be a shortage of doctors in the future, as well. So some of that their work will go to a computer,” he shares.

Vijlbrief adds, “But that leaves them more time to do the job they more like to do, like speak to patients and parents and take some time to explain what is going on.”

“They can help them guide their way through a disease instead of just being the person that types in information and orders tests.”

Today, he says, his team is looking to expand their work to other diseases or complications for preterm babies.

We can look at brain development or how preterm babies perform when they are five, eight or 20 years old, he states.

“Can we treat current [preterm] babies better than we did so far and can data analytics help us with that? How can we build a better future for these babies everyday?”

Inclusive leadership

As to advice for people working on similar projects, he advises: “Include everyone in the process.”

“Spend time in going back to the doctors, to the nurses, and tell them what you are doing.”

“Not only will they see the process but will also say, ‘that is good that you thought of this, but this solution will not work in process,” and explain why. “That will only help you improve.”

Spend time with people working on the data and educate them on what they are dealing with, he says. “The data is all numbers and letters, but in the end, it concerns, in my case, a preterm baby.”

“They have to  know what happens to preterm babies and how they are being treated,” stresses Vijlbrief, “to get a sense of where the data is coming from, and how they can make value and understanding of the data.”

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