A Canadian first – researchers at The Montreal Children’s Hospital test wireless vital-sign sensors on tiny newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit. The Smart Hospital Project was launched thanks to a generous donation of $2.5 million from National Bank, as well as contributions from other corporate philanthropists.

Researchers with The Montreal Children’s Hospital  Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) have launched a study to compare data captured by wireless, wearable vital-sign sensors to data collected by traditional wired electrodes. The Children’s Smart Hospital Project, conducted with the Child Health and Human Development Program of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, is the first study of its kind in Canada. The findings could have wide-ranging impact on the health of fragile newborns both here in Quebec and around the world.

Wireless patient vital-sign sensors enable continuous monitoring throughout a newborn’s hospital stay. They will alert nurses and physicians to changes in the patient’s condition more quickly, improving care and even reducing hospital stays. Down the road, wireless monitoring could allow some patients to return at home while their vital signs are monitored remotely.

“Suppose we can show wireless, wearable vital-sign sensors are as accurate and safe as traditional technology. In that case, we will be much closer to ushering in a mammoth change in how we care for NICU patients. Indeed, in how we care for all patients,” said neonatologist Dr. Guilherme Sant’Anna, one of the Smart Hospital Project’s principal investigators.

The Smart Hospital Project was launched thanks to a generous donation from lead donor National Bank and other supporters.

“The Bank is proud to team up with The Montreal Children’s Hospital as part of the Smart Hospital Project,” said Laurent Ferreira, President and Chief Executive Officer of National Bank. “This large-scale project has the potential to transform pediatric care while having a positive impact on the lives of young patients and their families. We’re pleased to support this groundbreaking initiative and want to highlight the exceptional work being done by researchers, doctors and the project’s entire team.”

Today’s technology

Right now, critically ill babies in the NICU have five to ten wired electrodes taped to their fragile skin. These devices – first introduced in the 1970s – are attached to a wall of machines that monitor a newborn’s breathing, blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, etc. Often, the mass of wires is bigger than many of the newborns they are monitoring.

Although these wires are vital, there are drawbacks. They constrain the baby’s movements, increase the risk of infection, can damage delicate newborn skin, and make providing care, changing diapers and feedings cumbersome. This technology also requires nurses to manually spot check their patients’ vital signs at various points throughout the day.

In addition, the tangle of wires can make it difficult for parents to cuddle and bond with their sick newborn during a critical period of the child’s development.

The new wireless technology

In comparison, the wireless wearable vital-sign monitors consist of two sensors: a small patch on the baby’s chest and a bracelet around the baby’s wrist or ankle. That’s it. The Bluetooth-enabled sensors continuously transmit the baby’s vital signs to a computer located at the nursing station rather than in the patient’s room. The constant monitoring gives the healthcare team a more complete picture of the child’s status. The sensors can also capture additional signals, such as the baby’s movements.

As part of the initial phase of this project, the researchers are developing a smart dashboard that will present graphic trends. A graphical user interface with a control system enables the hospital staff to observe the status of all the patients and take appropriate actions.

The Children’s researchers also plan to introduce machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyze the data, thus providing additional information to support the health care team and improve patient outcomes.

And of course, without all those wires, mom and dad can easily pick up their newborn to snuggle or practise skin-to-skin “kangaroo” care.

Next phases of the research

In the subsequent phases of the project, The Children’s team will continue testing the wireless, wearable vital-sign sensors in other units of the hospital to further examine the safety and effectiveness of the sensors among different types of patients at The Children’s. The team will also work on developing automated signal processing and machine learning tools to help transform patient data into clinically meaningful information, which will then be transferred to a user-friendly dashboard that can be used for both clinical and research activities. Ultimately, the goal will be to bring the hospital to the forefront of the ever-growing information age by advancing it toward a wireless “Smart Hospital.”

Stronger together

“Our donors support research that will answer important medical questions on the most pressing pediatric health issues of our time. We thank National Bank for its leadership in supporting the Smart Hospital Project, a Canadian first, that will ensure better outcomes for tiny, sick newborns,” said Renée Vézina, President of The Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation. “Our generous community is helping The Children’s find Unexpected Ways to Heal.”

The NICU Smart Hospital Project is one of many transformational projects made possible thanks to The Children’s Foundation Unexpected Ways to Heal campaign, which aims to raise $200 million by December 2026. It is the most ambitious fundraising objective for a pediatric hospital in Quebec’s history.

Dr. Sant’Anna, a neonatologist at The Children’s and Scientist, RI-MUHC, Dr. Wissam Shalish, a neonatologist at The Children’s ad Scientist, RI-MUHC and Dr. Robert Kearney, Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at McGill University, are the Smart Hospital Project’s three principal investigators.

The Montreal Children’s Hospital and The Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation gratefully thank the following donors for their generous support of The Children’s Smart Hospital Project: National Bank, Opération Enfant Soleil and Stelpro.