Hospitals around the country have been upgrading their neonatal intensive care units to include personal webcams for each tiny patient. It's a convenience for parents—and reduces worries about people bringing in germs.
The neonatal intensive care unit at Saint Thomas Midtown in Nashville is the latest hospital to join the webcam wave, among facilities around the country from big cities to small towns installing cameras over each infant.
At Saint Thomas, Sherri Anderson has 20 years of experience as a neonatal nurse, watching parents run themselves ragged trying to be at the hospital every waking hour, sometimes commuting long distances.
"The parents go through a lot — emotionally, spiritually, physically," Anderson says. "It's very taxing, and sometimes they just need to go home and just recover."
The $1,200 cameras — which Saint Thomas paid for through a special fundraiser — come from a company called Natus Medical. They provide a close-up shot that anyone in the world can log on to see with a password.
Jill Brothers had twin boys born at 27 weeks, requiring a two-month stay in the NICU. Her husband, who plays professional baseball, was away for spring training most of that time, but he could get on the computer and watch the boys' progress.
"This has been a crucial element to just being a part and feeling like you're involved with their growth," she says. "There's lots of other people in the family that have been able to log on and see the boys and see them real-time, which is great."
Brothers still came to the hospital every day, but she found herself checking the web stream when she was up in the middle of the night to watch the boys breathing.
"I really just felt like it was safe and comfortable," she says.
Parents' peace of mind is only one aim, though. Saint Thomas NICU nursing director Donna Darnell says the new cameras could cut down on germs sneaking into the unit from other family members visits.
"There are times throughout the year that we worry about a lot of visitors. Flu season is the best example," Darnell says.
Even during normal times, access for family and friends is highly restricted because of germs — and the cameras give many more people the opportunity to see the tiny patients.
In the little research that has been done, parents have loved the video access. Doctors are OK with it also, but a study published in the American Journal of Perinatology found some nurses have misgivings about being watched all day and all night.
One of the study authors, Dr. Gene Dempsey from the University College Cork in Ireland, helped conduct the survey and says nurses worry they will get even more after-hours calls, wanting an explanation for what's on screen. But, he says, that doesn't seem to happen.
"In fact some of the workers [in hospitals with these cameras] suggested that the interaction at parent level — in terms of phone calls in the evening and at nightime — are less when the system is in place," he says.
Dempsey's own hospital is launching a webcam system in the next few weeks and he's made a point of getting nurses on board.
"What we're probably going to do, and we've had much discussion with the nursing staff initially, is that this would be a phased-in process," he says.
Dempsey says they'll start with "virtual visitation hours." At Saint Thomas, the nursing director decided to turn off the live streams whenever they're working with a child — a compromise that seems to have everyone smiling for the camera.
This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WPLN and Kaiser Health News.