Children's hospitals often lead the way on innovation

In South Florida's hospitals, many innovations started in children's-only medical centers. Think calming colors and MRI machines designed for comfort.

You can learn a lot from a child. Just ask South Florida's adult hospital industry.

Some of the newest, most patient-pleasing innovations got their start in the halls and bedsides of medical centers catering exclusively to children. Think calming colors on the walls, dial-up dining service and MRI machines designed for comfort, not just practicality — to name a few recent changes inspired by children's hospitals.

Count among the trendsetters South Florida's own: Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood, a state-of-the-art facility built with the input of pediatric patients' parents; Miami Children's Hospital, which crafted an injury prevention program now in place in hospitals around the globe; and Chris Evert Children's Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, where doctors say they are among the first in the area to use a high-tech camera to detect signs of blindness in preemies.

Caring for the youngest of patients naturally breeds innovation, experts say.

"There's a much healthier focus on the patient experience, and the reason is because they're kids," said Nathan Larmore, a California-based technology strategist who advises the health care industry. "It really gets to you. You envision your own children. So there's even more emphasis on making sure they get the best possible experience out of the worst possible situation."

Larmore said architects even use a different word when designing children's hospitals: whimsy.

"That gives you a little hint as to their thinking," he said. "You don't hear talk of 'whimsy' when you're talking about an orthopedic facility."

For whimsy, look no further than Joe DiMaggio's $140 million expansion. Nearly three years later, the hospital is an explosion of color, with cartoon characters painted on the walls, a giant art sculpture on the front lawn, interactive big-screen TVs in the rooms and order-in meal service on the menu.

The high-tech CT scanner is outfitted as a pirate ship, and parents are welcome to stay during the test — as they are throughout their child's medical process, even in the case of an emergency resuscitation.

"You have families who don't just want to drop their child off to be wheeled down the hall," said Michelle Barone, director of patient and family centered care at Joe DiMaggio and its parent hospital, Memorial Regional. "It's not like taking your car in to get fixed. This is our children, our heart and soul."

It didn't take long for that patient-centered philosophy to spread beyond Memorial Healthcare System's children-only facility. Many of the innovations that bubbled up from the Joe DiMaggio expansion have made their way next-door to Memorial Regional, too.

"We started rethinking the whole environment," Barone said. "Why is the design so different? Why are kids getting all the colors and the happy environment?"

Today, the walls at Memorial are painted in more comforting earth tones; patients are invited to bring iPods to MRI and CT scans to help soothe their nerves; and families are welcome to stay during bedside procedures, even emergency resuscitations. At shift change in Joe DiMaggio, and now Memorial, nurses exchange information in the hospital room, with patients and families listening in.

"It's a culture change," Barone said.

A lot of innovations begin in children's facilities because, many times, hospital equipment and procedures are often designed with adult patients in mind, so "you have to think differently" to adapt them to children, said Maria Osuch, nurse manager in the neonatal intensive care unit at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale.

For example, doctors have found IV coolants effective in quickly lowering adults' body temperature to minimize tissue damage after heart attacks and strokes. But the same process would be dangerous for newborns' tiny bodies, so when an infant is born deprived of oxygen, Broward Health has been using cooling blankets to bring down temperature, with great success, Osuch said.

Likewise, retina cameras used in most ophthalmologists' offices are fine for diagnosing adult eye ailments, but they're not practical for use on babies, especially premature infants, said pediatric ophthalmologist Dr. M. Edward Guthrie.

So at the Chris Evert Children's Hospital, housed at Broward Health, doctors were among the first in South Florida to use the so-called RetCam, a specialized, high-powered camera that helps detect early changes that can lead to blindness or cancer in the littlest eyes, Guthrie said.

Experimentation is almost an inherent part of the culture at children's hospitals, according to Larmore, the health care consultant.

Their budgets are typically more robust, perhaps because they find their cause an easier touch on the fundraising circuit, and there are far fewer children's facilities than adult hospitals.

Those factors combined, Larmore said, tend to make children's hospital executives "more tolerant of experimentation and more aggressive about pushing the envelope."

It's that Petri-dish environment that gave rise to the Humpty Dumpty Falls Prevention Program, crafted in 2006 by a team of Miami Children's Hospital nurses who wanted to do something to help their young patients avoid debilitating falls. Encouraged by hospital management, the team identified the biggest risk factors and used them to create a Humpty Dumpty Falls Scale and prevention program, which has since been patented.

The program is now in use in more than 700 hospitals around the world, including American military hospitals, said Miami Children's spokeswoman Jennifer Caminas.

Miami Children's is also among the few hospitals in the country to invent and manufacture its own line of children's products, including an Insect Shield Romper and Baby Safe Nail Trimmer.

Expect the entrepreneurial spirit to continue to catch on, and for children's hospitals to continue setting the tone, experts say.

Today, patient satisfaction isn't just an industry buzz phrase, it's a must. With the federal government factoring satisfaction scores into reimbursement rates, adult hospitals are discovering what children's facilities learned long ago — that all patients, no matter their age, could use a little whimsy in their day.

"When you're sick and in the hospital, doesn't everyone's inner child come out?" Barone said. "We're all children at heart."

nbrochu@tribune.com