Robert White, M.D., began his practice at Beacon Children's Hospital in South Bend, Indiana, in 1981. For Dr. White, joining forces with Pediatrix™ Medical Group in 1997 was an exciting opportunity to grow and perform collaborative research with other neonatologists across the country. Equipped with increased support from the Pediatrix team, Dr. White dove into research on a topic he was passionate about—NICU design.
Changing the design of NICUs
When Dr. White first began practicing in the 70s, the NICU focused on delivering care through new technology. There was much less focus on how NICUs were designed, and babies were often placed in noisy and bright rooms. Through his extensive research, Dr. White and his team found this to be an inadequate environment for babies to grow and thrive. Bright lights make it difficult for babies to enter a steady circadian rhythm. Insufficient noise blockers create a stressful environment, while families lacked comfort and freedom when visiting their babies because most units were not designed with privacy in mind. Newly designed NICUs place a greater emphasis on these details. "We have to pay attention to the human side of healthcare," Dr. White explains. "The NICU needs to be a good place to spend a very difficult time of your life rather than adding to the stress."
When Dr. White began his research, there was, at times, resistance to change. "The most effective way that we've managed to illustrate the need for NICU design changes is by producing data. When we showed that with this improved layout, babies did better, moved out of the hospital quicker, and ultimately saved the hospital money, it made a big difference," Dr. White explains. The data and evidence were irrefutable.
Caring for the whole family
Dr. White says his inspiration for creating a positive environment for patients and their families in the NICU stems from his hospital experience. Particularly, he was shaped by his residency and fellowship training at Johns Hopkins University. At the beginning of his program, all residents cared for a child with leukemia and their family. At that time, leukemia was almost always a fatal disease, making the situation more challenging for residents as they grew to know and love the child and family. "I learned that getting families through the process of their child passing is the most valuable thing a clinician can do for a family," Dr. White says. "Most importantly, I was able to see how God could bless a family even after they lost a child. I saw how some families can put things back together and became closer despite a tragedy."
In the classes he teaches at the University of Notre Dame, the most emotional lesson is often on palliative care. Dr. White wants his students to understand that taking care of someone who is dying or has a chronic illness doesn't need to be something they should fear. There is potential for good even during the difficult times. The families of the children who don't make it are often the most grateful for the care they've received.
Shaping the future
Being a driving part of the change in NICU designs and improvements in care has been gratifying for Dr. White. He is as pleased by the impact he's making on the future, one student at a time. As Dr. White looks back on his career as a physician, he lends his advice to those entering the field. Transitioning from Johns Hopkins to South Bend, Dr. White learned that he could still make a significant impact on research and patient care. As Dr. White says, "You don't have to be in an ivory tower to change the world."
Further, he speaks to the importance of expertise. "I think there is potential for anyone to be an expert at something. Don't underestimate yourself because you can absolutely make a difference in whatever you're passionate about," he shares. Becoming an expert doesn't have to be all-consuming. He recommends following a "10% rule, spending 10% of your time working towards becoming an expert at something can make a real difference", stating that sometimes all it takes to produce change is a dedication of your time, a few hours a week. He also notes that no change is too big or small; the point is to make a difference in people's lives. If you've done that, then you have already succeeded.
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