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Sisters Hospital to open expanded 'family-centered' neonatal unit

Sisters Hospital will open an expanded neonatal intensive care unit this month, a project reflecting an increase in demand and changes in care over the years.

The $8.8 million project doubled the number of bassinets to 40; created more family-friendly areas, including "parents-only" spaces; and incorporated single-family rooms, including those dedicated to births of twins and triplets.

The rooms contain such aesthetic touches as lighting and sound controls, infant bathing sinks, and refrigeration units for breast milk and formula.

"The whole idea of family-centered care has come a long way in the last 15 or so years – the idea of involving parents in the care of their babies," said Dr. Robert Dukarm, chief neonatologist.

One of the key changes in the move, following a trend at other NICUs here, is the use of single rooms for newborns instead of larger pods to encourage more skin-to-skin contact between baby and mother. The larger spaces also can more easily accommodate the therapists, nurses and other staff that care for patients.

"We want more space per baby. The single-unit pod is now the standard of care, so there is less noise, better light, and family involvement," said Dukarm.

The 21,000-square-foot neonatal intensive care unit – nearly three times larger – will open April 24. It is located next to the maternity unit and newborn nursery, forming a centralized location for mother-baby care. Up to now, the Catholic Health system hospital operated an overflow unit on another floor for newborns that were doing well.

On average, there are 32 newborns in the NICU, leaving at capacity on many days, said Carrie Sette-Camara, hospital spokeswoman.

What's driven the growth in use?

Dukarm said improved technology is saving more premature and low-birth-weight babies. There also are more women delivering later in life and using fertility treatments, as well as economic and social disparities that lead to poorer health outcomes, and more deliveries to women with substance abuse problems, including opioids.

The trend is national. More underweight babies are being born despite advances in care, and there is a pattern of disparity by race, with poor birth outcomes more likely among blacks, according to recent data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Michael Reilly installs a door to a room in the newly expanded and modernized neonatal intensive care unit at Sisters Hospital in Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The project did not increase the number of hospital-related beds in the region. Catholic Health received state approval to transfer 20 adult medical/surgical beds from its Sisters of Charity-St. Joseph Campus in Cheektowaga to use for the NICU expansion, Sette-Camara said.

As a designated Level 3 NICU, the facility is staffed and equipped to provide specialized care for premature infants as young as 23 weeks and full-term babies with special needs.

New York State has a hierarchy of four levels of perinatal care provided by hospitals – Levels 1, 2 and 3, as well as the highest level regional perinatal centers – with each level designating a capacity to handle women and newborns requiring increasingly complex care.

Kaleida Health's Oishei Children's Hospital operates the Western New York regional perinatal center, with the largest NICU at 64 beds. Level 2 centers are located at Kaleida's Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, a 10-bed unit that opened in 2015, and Catholic Health's Mercy Hospital.

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