Healthy Start Stories |
Rob Taal

The pediatric hospital of the future: ‘How can we use technological innovations to improve care for children and ensure accessibility?

The hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is a place where the most vulnerable babies receive intensive care. Day in, day out. This care is not only intensive for the newborns, but also places high demands on nurses. How do we ensure that these patients and their parents receive the care they need, while keeping the workload for nurses sustainable? This is what Rob Taal, pediatrician-neonatologist at Erasmus Medical Centre and Ambition Lead at Healthy Start, tells us.

“As a pediatrician-neonatologist I work in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) department of Erasmus MC. The majority of patients are premature neonates, with a birthweight less than 1500 grams. These premature babies are very fragile and require continuous care. This is quite challenging and demands a lot from nurses and the organization of our department. Sometimes we don’t have enough beds available for the babies of women who are at risk of giving birth prematurely and need special care. In that case, the pregnant mother may have to be transferred to another hospital. This has a big impact. At the same time, there are many changes among the nursing staff. As a physician and researcher, I want to know how we can tackle these challenges. I am particularly curious about the possibilities of technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. Can these tools help us predict when, for example, a baby will need certain medication? And can technological innovations, such as robotics, provide support for nurses? I believe that through these innovations we can improve healthcare and at the same time reduce the workload on healthcare staff.”

I believe that with technological innovations we can improve healthcare and at the same time reduce the workload on nurses

Passion for neonatology

“My interest in pediatrics started during my high school years. At the time, I gave korfball training to children and organized sports camps. That was a lot of fun to do. That’s how my interest in the connection between children and medicine arose. When I came into contact with the subspecialty neonatology during my medical studies, I discovered my passion for neonatology. The work of a neonatologist requires great accuracy and knowledge of complex procedures, a challenge that really appealed to me. The in-depth contact with parents also seemed like a interesting aspect of this profession, as did the clear end goal of care: the moment that a baby is strong enough to leave the ward.

Once I decided to become a pediatrician, it wasn’t easy to find a training position. That’s why I decided to do PhD research first, a wish that had been around for a time. I was given the opportunity to study the development of the kidneys in young children under the supervision of Vincent Jaddoe, one of the initiators of Healthy Start. After my PhD research, I was accepted to train as a pediatrician, after which I specialized as a neonatologist. That step changed my scientific focus. From that moment on, I wanted to make a direct impact on the care of premature babies.

In recent years, I have been researching infections in premature babies. Infections occur in about 20% of premature babies. Unfortunately, 10% of babies die as a result of an infection. I wanted to know if we could detect infections earlier. In recent years, together with colleagues, we have introduced a special warning system that, based on heart rate data, indicates whether there may be an infection. What I find interesting about this research is that we are using large amounts of data and technological innovations to strengthen our medical knowledge. My hope is that we will eventually be able to develop a prediction model that identifies infections in time and proposes the right treatment, in order to prevent serious health damage and death.”

Transdisciplinary work within Healthy Start

”Within Healthy Start, I have found the ideal place to use my experience as a doctor and researcher. As Ambition Lead I am responsible for Ambition Project 2. Within this ambition project, we are fully focused on the ‘Pediatric hospital of the future’. How do we ensure that children can continue their normal lives as much as possible, even if they have to go to hospital a lot for a chronic condition? And how do we prevent children and their parents from experiencing too much stress during hospitalization? We also want to know how we can better organize care, so that we can, for example, prevent transfers of pregnant women with an imminent premature birth. At the same time, we also focus on the well-being and workload among nurses, which is currently extremely high. Within these projects, I work closely with Josephine Wagenaar and Mariska Wildschut-de Heer, among others.”

I keep an eye on the fact that we work in a truly transdisciplinary way, which is at the heart of the unique way of working at Healthy Start

“In my role as Ambition Lead, I ensure that the projects within our ambition project continue to run smoothly. But my contribution goes further. I also keep an eye if project evolve in a truly transdisciplinary way, which is at the heart of Healthy Start’s unique way of working. I know from experience how easy it is to stay in your own comfort zone and only work with your direct colleagues. But the collaboration with researchers from Delft University of Technology, among others, takes us further and makes our research even more fascinating. Moreover, we are fully exploring the possibilities of technological innovations. For example, we are currently investigating how robots can support our work. In addition, we look at how we can monitor the development of a baby who has been transferred to another hospital. For this we use a special remote video interface.”

A different way of thinking

“At Healthy Start, I learned to think in a different way. For example, we are now investigating when women with an imminent premature birth need to be transferred from a regular to a special ward. Previously, I would have focused solely on the considerations for a transfer. But now I realize that if you really want to make an impact, you have to think much further. What does such a transfer mean, for example, for the pressure on nurses, healthcare costs and the number of available beds? In our own hospital, but also in affiliated hospitals.”

I now realize that if you really want to make an impact, you have to think much further

“I learn a lot from scientists with a design background. I’m more used to the traditional way of researching, where we are often inclined to answer questions by collecting new data. But sometimes the solution lies in adapting existing processes or simply in improving communication between healthcare providers. That’s really a different way of thinking for me.”

Off the beaten track

“Of course, I sometimes run into challenges. There is still so much to research and improve when it comes to the pediatric hospital of the future. That makes our ambition project wildly interesting, but also challenging. It means that as an Ambition Lead, I have to bring focus and ensure that projects are actually completed. If an investigation is not going well, I have to call a colleague to account, including colleagues who have more experience than I do. This is not always easy, but it helps me develop in a leadership role.

As far as I’m concerned, daring to go off the beaten track is the key to real impact. By involving other disciplines, we can make a difference. At the same time, I also stay close to my own patients. Every day, as a doctor, I am committed to providing the best possible care for every child. With the multitude of technological innovations and knowledge we have today, I am hopeful about the future of care for all children.”

Rob Taal’s Healthy Start perspective
“Work is currently underway on the design of the new Sophia Children’s Hospital. I hope that our projects will provide valuable input for this. We do this by critically examining every facet of care. Can we redesign care processes with advancing knowledge? Can we use innovations to improve our current care? And can we facilitate caregivers in their work in the best possible way and maximize job satisfaction? In addition, I think it is really important to design the new hospital together with people from different disciplines. In this way, we avoid simply giving the old children’s hospital a new look.”

The more people who participate at Healthy Start, the better research we can do and the more children we can help. Do you feel involved in this topic? Then join our community. Follow our LinkedIn or share your ideas by mail: