All Posts By

childrensal

Inside Pediatrics

U.S. News & World Report Names Nine Children’s of Alabama Programs to Best Children’s Hospitals List

U.S. News & World Report has named nine pediatric specialty services at Children’s of Alabama among the nation’s best children’s hospitals for 2021-22.

Children’s ranked in the top 50 programs in the United States for:

This is the 12th consecutive year that Children’s has participated in the program and 12th consecutive year to be included in the rankings among the best children’s hospitals in the nation. This is also the first year U.S. News & World Report has ranked hospitals by state and region. Children’s ranked as the top hospital in Alabama for children and tied for third in the southeast region. The complete listing and corresponding rankings for the magazine’s 2021-22 Best Children’s Hospitals is online at www.usnews.com/childrenshospitals.

“We’re particularly proud of our people and programs being recognized on the national and regional levels, as we continue to provide the finest possible care and treatment to the children and families we serve,” said Children’s CEO and President Tom Shufflebarger. “Last year was entirely unique, and this year has been challenging as well, as we bounce back from COVID-19. It’s also been a rewarding year and one that has made us better as we carry out our mission to be a leading pediatric medical center.”

Children’s and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Departments of Pediatrics and Surgery collaborated to submit the requested information. Children’s is the primary site for pediatric clinical and educational programs for the UAB School of Medicine. Children’s has provided specialized medical care for ill and injured children since 1911, offering inpatient and outpatient services throughout Central Alabama.

U.S. News & World Report introduced the Best Children’s Hospitals rankings in 2007 to help families of sick children find the best medical care available. Children’s and UAB began participating in the pediatric rankings in 2011.

Since 1911, Children’s of Alabama has provided specialized medical care for ill and injured children, offering inpatient, outpatient and primary care throughout Central Alabama. Ranked among the best children’s hospitals in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, Children’s serves patients from every county in Alabama and nearly every state. Children’s is a private, not-for-profit medical center that serves as the teaching hospital for the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) pediatric medicine, surgery, psychiatry, research and residency programs. The medical staff consists of UAB faculty and Children’s full-time physicians, as well as private practicing community physicians.

Hematology and Oncology, Inside Pediatrics, Pulmonology

Solving the Mystery of Lung Disease in Children with Sickle Cell Disease

Dr-Saadoon-Ammar-Pulmonology-Headhsot-Resized

Children’s of Alabama pulmonologist Ammar Alishlash, M.D.

If lung disease is the leading cause of death in children with sickle cell disease, then why aren’t pulmonologists more involved in their care earlier? That’s a question Children’s of Alabama pulmonologist Ammar Alishlash, M.D., wanted to answer. “I felt for us to take care of those patients, especially those with underlying lung disease, would serve them better clinically,” Dr. Alishlash said. 

In the past, the leading cause of death in those with sickle cell disease was infections. But the use of prophylactic antibiotics changed that. Today, it’s acute chest syndrome (ACS), marked by shortness of breath, low oxygen levels and fever. Many patients progress to respiratory failure, and some die. Yet lung specialists are not usually involved in their care while in the hospital or after discharge. Instead, in most children’s hospitals they are managed solely by hematologists. 

“The problem is, we don’t have any specific treatment targeted for acute chest syndrome,” said Dr. Alishlash. Instead, patients are managed with supportive therapy, including oxygen, fluids, antibiotics and sometimes invasive or non-invasive ventilation. 

Now Dr. Alishlash is on a mission to change that dynamic. He’s launched a three-pronged research initiative: identifying risk factors for ACS to proactively recognize children with a higher risk, developing clinical pathways to prevent progression and mortality and researching novel therapies to treat the condition. 

“I became interested in this condition because I feel that, as pulmonologists, we have experience with other lung diseases,” he said. “We can apply our knowledge from other lung diseases to the sickle cell population, which could open a lot of doors for diagnosis and new treatments.” 

So far, Dr. Alishlash has instituted a clinical pathway to standardize the care children with ACS receive after admission. The pathway has been in place for about 18 months, and the results are encouraging, with a nearly 50 percent reduction in length of stay. In addition, all patients have survived. Previously, one out of every 100 children would die. “That’s pretty significant, especially when you’re talking about children, who are typically between 2 and 4 years of age when they are most likely to develop ACS,” he said. 

Dr. Alishlash has also made progress in identifying risk factors for ACS in children with sickle cell disease. One is nocturnal hypoxemia, when oxygen levels drop at night. This seems to induce the sickling and is associated with increased risk of ACS.1 He also found a correlation between the neighborhood where patients live and ACS, due to, he thinks, air quality, socioeconomic factors and greater stress.2 

On the laboratory side, Dr. Alishlash and his team are using a sickle cell mouse model to test potential treatments as well as identify triggers. One interesting finding is that chlorine can cause sickling, leading to the release of heme from red blood cells, which is toxic to the lung endothelium and subsequent development of ACS. A medication called hemopexin, however, scavenges the free heme. When given to mice exposed to chlorine who developed ACS, hemopexin reduced the death rate from 80 percent to 20 percent.3 

At the same time, Dr. Alishlash has started a twice-monthly clinic for sickle cell patients with underlying lung disease. The clinic is very busy, he said. “And patients’ outcomes are improving, which is very encouraging.” 


1 Nourani AR, Rahman AKMF, Pernell B, et al. Nocturnal hypoxemia measured by polysomnogram is associated with acute chest syndrome in pediatric sickle cell disease. J Clin Sleep Med. 2021;17(2):219–226.

2 Alishlash, AS, Rutland, SB, Friedman, AJ, et al. Acute chest syndrome in pediatric sickle cell disease: Associations with racial composition and neighborhood deprivation. Pediatr Blood Cancer. 2021; 68:e28877

3 Alishlash AS, Sapkota M, Ahmad I, et al. Chlorine inhalation induces acute chest syndrome in humanized sickle cell mouse model and ameliorated by postexposure hemopexin. Redox Biol. 2021;44:102009. doi:10.1016/j.redox.2021.102009

Inside Pediatrics, Neurology & Neurosurgery

Pioneering Surgery Spares Parents and Infants from Helmets

The Cleft and Craniofacial Center at Children’s of Alabama is one of the busiest in the country, with some of the most experienced physicians and support staff. From cleft palate to craniosynostosis (a condition in which the skull fuses too early) and complex tumor surgeries, the center draws patients from the entire Southeast region and beyond. It is a truly multidisciplinary group with neurologists, neurosurgeons, plastic surgeons, and a craniofacial pediatrician. 

It also offers state-of-the art therapies, including a new type of endoscopic surgery for craniosynostosis in infants as young as three months that is only performed in a few centers in the U.S. “The typical procedure is an endoscopic release of the craniosynostosis followed by post-operative helmet therapy,” said neurosurgeon James M. Johnston, M.D. “Helmet therapy works well, but kids have to wear it for 23 hours a day, and that can be a lot of work for families, especially when they live far from Birmingham,” he said. In addition, the Alabama Medicaid program, which covers most of these children, does not pay for the helmets, which can cost thousands of dollars (and children often need more than one). This puts tremendous financial strain on many families.  

So Dr. Johnston, joined by neurosurgeon Curtis J. Rozzelle, M.D., and plastic surgeons Rene’ P. Myers, M.D., and John Grant, M.D., brought spring-mediated cranioplasty, which was developed at Wake Forest University, to Children’s. It starts with the same endoscopic craniectomy used for children who would require helmets. Only in this procedure, the plastic surgeon steps in and inserts custom-made springs into the bony defect created by the surgery. The springs work to expand the skull over several months to correct the abnormal head shape and ensure appropriate cranial volume for brain growth. A few months later, the plastic surgeon removes the springs during a same-day surgery.  

“What’s nice is that there’s no need for a helmet,” Dr. Johnston said. Plus, studies show the procedure is just as safe and effective as cranioplasties requiring helmets.1 It’s also covered by all health insurance. “So, we’re able to do it for all children,” he said.  

A similar procedure using cranial distractors like those used to lengthen femurs is used for skull expansion, explained Dr. Grant. This technology is used in older children who need more intracranial volume but who are beyond the age at which the skull can form new bone to fill in surgically created soft spots. By “stretching” the bones of the skull more slowly, he said, the child’s body adjusts by making bone to fill in the growing gap. 

Regardless of the procedure used, early referrals are critical for these babies, said Dr. Rozzelle. “If we can see them by 2 months of age, that gives us plenty of time to get whatever preoperative assessments we need and get them on the schedule so that either the spring or endoscopic craniectomy with subsequent molding helmet is a viable option,” he said. Older babies cannot be treated endoscopically and require standard open surgery, which may lead to more blood loss and longer hospital stays.2 

Yet the craniofacial clinic still sometimes sees babies 6 months or older who never received a diagnosis or whose pediatrician didn’t refer them to Children’s. “That’s frustrating,” Dr. Rozzelle said. 

Nonetheless, said Dr. Myers, “Since we are comfortable with all of the techniques, we can tailor a plan to the individual child. No one is exactly the same.” 


1 Arko L, Swanson JW, Fierst TM, et al. Spring-mediated sagittal craniosynostosis treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia: technical notes and literature review. Neurosurg Focus. 2015 May;38(5):E7

2 Hashim PW, Patel A, Yang JF, et al. The effects of whole-vault cranioplasty versus strip craniectomy on long-term neuropsychological outcomes in sagittal craniosynostosis. Plast Reconstr Surg 134:491–501, 2014.

Inside Pediatrics, Neurology & Neurosurgery

Advanced Imaging Enables Complex Surgeries for Epilepsy

If you’re going to conduct surgery on the brains of children with severe epilepsy, you better know what type they have, where they have it, and how it affects function.  

That’s where functional imaging comes in, including single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT), functional MRI (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and magnetoencephalography (MEG). Most neurosurgical centers have one or two; but Children’s of Alabama has them all.  

“This is important,” said pediatric neurosurgeon Jeffrey P. Blount, M.D., “because there is never perfect alignment between the studies.” With multiple studies, however, comes greater certainty about the brain regions the disease impacts, which provides greater certainty about which parts to remove during surgery. Agreement between the scans is called “concordance,” and it is the central concept in epilepsy localization, said Dr. Blount.  

Most patients who require epilepsy surgery also require an invasive monitoring system prior to surgery, said neurosurgeon Curtis J. Rozzelle, M.D. In the past, he explained, that required an open cranial exposure to place electrodes on the surface of the brain and, sometimes, within the brain. 

But with newer techniques, particularly stereoelectroencephalography (SEEG), a minimally invasive surgical procedure used to precisely find the areas of the brain where seizures originate, surgeons can place an array of depth electrodes without performing a craniotomy. Instead, each electrode is placed robotically through a tiny hole drilled in the skull using a robotic stereotactic approach. “That relies very heavily on high-resolution scans,” Dr. Rozelle said, including fusing CT and MRI images, to put the electrodes in without damaging a critical part of the brain. 

“Mostly what we’re trying to avoid is hitting blood vessels with the depth electrodes while getting an array of electrodes that will cover the area of interest,” Dr. Rozelle said. The functional imaging studies are critical in establishing the target zones. Plus, since MEG and fMRI are based on magnetic field fluctuations, the MEG images can be mapped onto the MRI scan in three dimensions. The older technique, in which electrodes were placed on the surface of the brain, only provided a two-dimensional image. 

The child spends several days with the implanted electrodes to capture data about the seizures, which a neurologist then analyzes to identify the exact area of the brain that requires treatment. That surgery itself also relies heavily on high-resolution imaging. A laser ablation, for instance, is performed in the MRI scanner. A larger-volume surgery that requires open resection also relies on imaging because the surgical target looks the same as the normal brain. “To help us ensure that we hit the target, we can map the neurologist analysis into a navigation system that directs us to the right area,” Dr. Rozzelle said. “That ensures that we remove the tissue we need to take out and keep everything else intact.” 

Neurosurgeons at Children’s perform about 50 cranial epilepsy procedures a year, of which about 30 require the invasive monitoring. 

“We are very fortunate to work in a center where we have so much high-quality functional imaging available on a single campus,” said Dr. Blount. 

Inside Pediatrics, Neurology & Neurosurgery

Addressing Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disease from Hydrocephalus

Hydrocephalus-Doctor-Brain-Scans-Resized-V2

Children’s of Alabama neurosurgeon Brandon Rocque, M.D.

It’s not surprising that kids with brain tumors and their parents experience a significant amount of stress and psychological distress during the acute post-diagnosis period. It even has a name: pediatric medical traumatic stress. As Children’s of Alabama neurosurgeon Brandon Rocque, M.D., studied this phenomenon a few years ago, it occurred to him that it would almost certainly apply to children with hydrocephalus. 

“We know that just encountering doctors or the medical system can be traumatic for children,” said Dr. Rocque. “For children, just coming to the hospital can be traumatic enough to trigger post-traumatic stress disorder,” or PTSD. 

Numerous factors contribute to stress, particularly the perceived threat to the child’s life. “Even if there isn’t a threat, the child perceives it as such,” Dr. Rocque said. Add to that separation from their parents, uncertainty about the outcome, and the unpredictability of a serious medical condition. “That describes hydrocephalus extremely well,” he said, because these children are treated with shunts that could become blocked at any time requiring additional medical interventions.  

Symptoms of shunt failure can vary widely. Some children simply have a mild headache; other patients can become extremely sick and be in danger of death within a couple of hours. By age 10, “the average child [with hydrocephalus] has had at least two shunt replacements. This is always hanging over the families,” Dr. Rocque said, putting them and their children at high risk for PTSD. 

To test his hypothesis, Dr. Rocque introduced a screening survey into the hydrocephalus clinic to screen for PTSD as well as anxiety, depression, fatigue and resilience. “We found that, overall, the kids with hydrocephalus are doing pretty well. But the parents are not doing so well,” he said. About one in five parents met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD based on their symptoms. More than half attributed it to their child’s condition.  

So why aren’t the kids as affected? One reason, Dr. Rocque said, is that the children don’t know anything different. They’ve lived their entire lives with the condition and the shunts. “But for parents, there was always something new and the risk that something bad is going to happen to their child,” he said.  

Not all the kids surveyed were fine, however. “Some had issues with PTSD, and those were the ones coming to the hospital more. Those whose shunts weren’t behaving well,” Dr. Rocque said. “We need to be aware that these kids have a higher risk for PTSD.”  

They also found that the children and their patients tested exhibited very little resilience, which can help protect against PTSD.  

A survey conducted in conjunction with the Hydrocephalus Association confirmed their findings.  

Dr. Rocque and his team are now working with the association to develop a program to help reduce the risk of PTSD in patients and their families and with a psychologist who is also the mother of an adult with hydrocephalus to develop a tool to help build resilience in patients and their families.  

“This is the first time anyone has really focused on the psychological comorbidities of this condition,” Dr. Rocque said. “I think it has the potential to have a big effect in our population.” 

Inside Pediatrics, Neurology & Neurosurgery

Exploring the Brain from the Inside Out

Pediatric neurointerventional radiology is a small but growing specialty, one increasingly in use given the growing number of endovascular procedures performed in children with neurovascular conditions. “It’s a niche specialty,” says Jesse Jones, M.D., Children’s of Alabama Chief of Neurointervention. “A lot of doctors don’t know about it—let alone patients.”  

Dr. Jones is part of the hospital’s vascular anomalies team, one of the largest pediatric vascular anomalies programs in the Southeast and the only one in Alabama. He works with an interdisciplinary team of experts specializing in the diagnosis, treatment and ongoing care of all vascular anomalies and is part of the team’s monthly clinic. 

On the adult side, neurointerventional radiologists spend a lot of time removing blood clots from stroke patients. But stroke is rarer in children. The hospital’s neurosurgeons and neurologists more often call on Dr. Jones to evaluate congenital anomalies, including vein of Galen malformation or arteriovenous malformations (AVM), as well as inflammatory disorders like vasculitis or obliterative vasculopathy. “It’s when a child presents with dangerous or unusual neurovascular findings and the team is trying to characterize it and plan future treatment that I come in,” he said. 

Dr. Jones, who completed a residency and two fellowships, uses minimally invasive techniques to diagnose and treat numerous neurovascular conditions, including stroke and AVM, but also aneurysms, and lympho-vascular proliferations of the head and neckThe beauty of his approach is that it helps avoid open incisions, reducing the risk of complications and enabling kids to go home sooner. 

His interest in pediatric medicine started with his grandfather, who was a pediatrician. “I looked up to the work he did treating children,” Dr. Jones said. “Working with adults can get frustrating because many conditions they have could have been avoided with lifestyle changes. But in children, they bear no responsibility.” 

Dr. Jones also knew he wanted to do something with the brain. “I’m fascinated with how the brain works,” he said. “It’s a miraculous organ and even after all these years of study still a bit of an enigma.” Being involved in a neuroscience-related field and interacting with other specialists who study the brain is intellectually stimulating, he said. “It’s the best of both worlds: I get to use my hands as an interventional radiologist and work with the brain too.” 

And, of course, work with children. 

Inside Pediatrics, Nephrology

Overflow at Children’s of Alabama’s Dialysis Unit

As the only pediatric dialysis unit in the state, Children’s of Alabama’s hemodialysis unit is used to being busy. But with COVID-19, “Our census has doubled,” said Children’s nephrologist Sahar Fathallah-Shaykh, M.D. One reason is that transplants were paused during the height of the pandemic, leaving many children who might have been able to stop dialysis forced to continue.  

Another reason is that more infants born with chronic kidney disease (CKD) are surviving because of new equipment capable of providing them dialysis. “We have seen many patients with CKD surviving who, just a few years ago, had no chance of surviving,” Dr. Fathallah-Shaykh said. Because these infants are so small, they must come to the hospital up to five times a week for the procedure, compared to three times a week for older children. Once infants are older, the team tries to transition them to peritoneal dialysis at home; but babies may have medical contraindications that require continuing on hemodialysis. 

The impact on the staff is significant, she said. “It’s a challenge.” Dialysis charge nurse Suzanne White, RN, ECP agrees. “It takes a lot of coordination to schedule treatments for 18 patients,” she said, particularly when treatment times last up to four hours. “Our days last 10 to 12 hours,” she said. 

One reason caring for infants on dialysis calls for intense attention, said Dr. Fathallah-Shayk, is that “nurses are at the bedside the entire time monitoring these babies. Babies move a lot, and if they move, the dialysis may not work as well.” The nurses console the babies, try to distract them and sometimes even hold them while they are dialyzed.  

The team includes a child life specialist who also tries to distract the infants during dialysis; social workers who support the families, including coordinating transportation and ensuring families keep their appointments; a dietician to help with nutrition and ensure proper growth; and a pharmacist to help with medications. “We all work as a team to make this happen,” Dr. Fathallah-Shayk said, “otherwise we couldn’t do it.”  

And, said White, “we have a good support system from the administration on down,” which helps avoid burnout. The unit also added more staff in anticipation of continued growth. “We are trying to coordinate their care to the best of our ability, troubleshoot and really communicate and work with each other,” she said. 

Inside Pediatrics, Nephrology

Welcoming the new PRISMAX Dialysis Machines to the PICU & CVICU

When you’re talking about continuous dialysis and plasmapheresis for sick kids, you want state-of-the-art technology. And that’s just what Children’s of Alabama got this year when hospital administrators approved a significant investment in the newest generation of the PRISMAX system for the Pediatric and Infant Center for Acute Nephrology (PICAN).  

The PICAN team is no stranger to these therapies; after all, the team has provided them for more 500 children for over 10,000 days since 2013 in the pediatric, neonatal and cardiac intensive care units. In 2020, the newest PRISMAX became available, and Children’s became the first hospital in the state and one of the first children’s hospitals in the country to receive the new machines, said David Askenazi, M.D., who directs the PICAN. “We are very grateful to the hospital for making this available to us and our patients,” he said. “We know that patients will benefit.” 

But first, everyone had to be trained to use the new machines. While it sounds like replacing the old with the new should be a relatively simple switch, the staff required intense education. 

“The educational part of the rollout was very important,” said acute dialysis coordinator Daryl Ingram, RN, BSN, CDN. “We had to make sure the nurses and physicians were comfortable with them before they started using them on patients.” He was pleasantly surprised at how the entire team embraced the new technology and the groundbreaking opportunity the new machines offered, he said. 

One reason could be the improvements the new system brought. For instance, nurses no longer have to manually empty 5-liter effluent bags. “It definitely saves time,” said Suzanne Gurosky, RN, ECP, the dialysis charge nurse. She also touted the battery backup in the machines, which enables patients to ambulate and even do physical therapy while still connected. Another plus is the ability of the machines to decipher the cause for an alarm—because someone moved or jostled the fluids, or because there was a real issue going on. That helps avoid disruptive alarms and alarm fatigue. 

It does this through artificial intelligence, “so it understands what’s happening better than it used to,” said Dr. Askenazi.  

The new PRISMAX also sports improved safety features, such as correcting itself for fluid removal. In addition, it provides extensive data that can be integrated into the department’s quality-improvement initiatives. “We’re excited to dig into that information and incorporate it into our practice,” said Dr. Askenazi.  

After the training and the successful integration of the new PRISMAX machines into the unit, there was one more thing the team needed to do: name them. “We like to name our machines to help the kids feel more comfortable,” said Ingram. The winners were Rosie, Max, and Astro from the old “The Jetsons” cartoon, Johnny 5 from the movie “Short Circuit,” and C3PO from, of course, “Star Wars.” 

Inside Pediatrics, Nephrology

COVID-19 Infection May Leave Kids with Kidney Problems

Although children were far less likely to contract COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic, they were affected. As of July 1, 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association reported more than 4.04 million children had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the United States; 50,439 in Alabama.1 Since the pandemic’s start, Children’s of Alabama has treated over 500 infants and children with COVID-19 and almost 100 with multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C), the long-term repercussions of which are just now emerging. 

Many affected children, like adults, have developed acute kidney injury (AKI) during hospitalization for severe disease, particularly children who have been hospitalized with MIS-C. One study of 152 children who had either acute COVID-19 or MIS-C found that AKI occurred in 10 percent of patients. These children had longer lengths of stay in the hospital and increased risk of other medical conditions.2 Another study of 52 patients with COVID-19 found that nearly 30 percent developed AKI.3 

“The jury is out on how much of that was due to severe illness versus how much the virus plays a direct role,” said Children’s nephrologist Erica C. Bjornstad, M.D. Some reports surmise that the virus is toxic to the kidney, but, Dr. Bjornstad said, more evidence is needed. Nonetheless, it appears that children who developed AKI while hospitalized need long-term follow-up as the long-term implications are not yet fully understood, she added. 

Thus, primary care physicians caring for these children after discharge should have a “high level of suspicion” if urine tests show high levels of protein, or children demonstrate new onset hypertension,” Dr. Bjornstad said. “They should look for COVID-19 as a culprit.” In fact, she suggests urine tests for all children who had COVID-19, even if they had a mild form of the disease, although no formal guidelines have been released. If the problem doesn’t resolve, the children should be referred to a nephrologist. “We don’t have a good handle if it goes away,” she said.  

“We’re still learning how this plays out since the pandemic is still not over,” Dr. Bjornstad said. Plus, “we don’t know what the fall holds with the Delta variant and as more people move indoors,” she added. 

Dr. Bjornstad and others at Children’s are involved with a large study that is mining an international registry of COVID-19 patients (children and adults) to tease out the effects on the kidney. Ideally, she would like to obtain funding to follow former patients for a prolonged period of time, “so we can keep learning and have data to support standard guidelines,” she said. 


1 Children and COVID-19: State-Level Data Report. American Academy of Pediatrics. July 1, 2021. Available at: https://services.aap.org/en/pages/2019-novel-coronavirus-covid-19-infections/children-and-covid-19-state-level-data-report/. Accessed July 7, 2021.

2 Basalely A, Gurusinghe S, Schneider J, et al. Acute kidney injury in pediatric patients hospitalized with acute COVID-19 and multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children associated with COVID-19. Clin Invest. 2021;100(1): 138-145

3 Knight, P.P., Deep, A. Save the kidneys in COVID-19. Pediatr Res (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41390-020-01280-x

Inside Pediatrics, Neonatology

Bringing Evidence to Bear in the Use of Perioperative Antibiotics

Ninety percent of patients in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Children’s of Alabama will undergo a surgical procedure during their admission, putting them at risk of infections and other complications. Thus, the NICU team has been implementing performance improvement initiatives to improve outcomes, including focusing on pain control and standardizing handoffs before and after surgery. 

The most recent initiative targets perioperative antibiotic use. “The vast majority of surgical patients will require some type of antibiotic during the perioperative period,” said neonatologist Allison Black, M.D., “and we noticed there wasn’t any standard as to the dose or type of antibiotics used for each procedure.” 

That’s a problem, she said, because prolonged use of broad-spectrum antibiotics may be harmful. “It changes the infant’s gut flora, increases the risk for antibiotic-resistant infections, and may have toxicities,” she said. 

Thus, the NICU team, including physicians, nurse practitioners, and pharmacists, collaborated with the general surgeons and each surgical subspecialty to devise a solution. The surgeons collected evidence and then recommended an antibiotic as well as its dose and duration based on the specific procedure. The team used these recommendations and the evidence supporting them to create the NICU Perioperative Antibiotic Prophylaxis guidelines. 

“Now, unless there is a specific reason, all perioperative antibiotics are ordered based on these guidelines, and surgeons follow the protocol,” Dr. Black said. “It’s like clockwork.” The result is less use of prolonged empiric antibiotics and less confusion over which to use. Another advantage is less exposure to nephrotoxic drugs that can lead to acute kidney injury, she said. 

The unit’s two pharmacists ensure the protocol is followed. “Initially, it was difficult to break our decades-long habit of asking the surgeons which antibiotic they preferred and for how long after each surgical case,” said clinical pharmacist Sadie Stone, PharmD. “With the perioperative guidelines in place, we can initiate an evidence-based regimen quickly for our most common surgical procedures.”  

Since instituting the guidelines, the pharmacists have been collecting data and tracking guideline compliance. “We discuss each surgical plan with the nurse practitioner based on the guidelines when the patient returns from surgery,” said clinical pharmacist Emily Evans, PharmD. Each case is then retrospectively reviewed to determine if the procedure has an antimicrobial course included in the guidelines. If so, the actual antimicrobial course is screened against the guidelines for adherence. “These guidelines have expanded our antimicrobial stewardship role in the NICU,” she said. 

“The hope is that reduction in the use of antibiotics will decrease the need for central lines, which, in turn, also reduces the risk of infections and associated complications,” said Dr. Black. The team also tracks post-operative infection rates to ensure there is no increase. 

“This initiative again shows the improvement possible with multidisciplinary collaboration,” she said.