Research led by Victoria University of Wellington academics that aims to improve the care provided to Māori families in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) has had a Health Research Council funding boost.

“Most participants in my previous research on whānau experiences following the admittance of their baby to the NICU felt alienated and isolated by their experiences in the NICU,” says Dr Kendall Stevenson from the University’s Centre for Women’s Health Research—Te Tātai Hauora o Hine, who is leading the research. “This research aims to change that.”

The research will be supported by a Health Research Council Feasibility Grant of $250,000.

Dr Stevenson’s previous research found whānau received a lack of access to support services in the NICU, including formal support services like social workers and midwives as well as the ability to access support from their wider whānau. This led to poor experiences in the NICU and impacts on the outcomes for whānau and babies further down the track, Dr Stevenson says.

To address this issue, Dr Stevenson and her fellow researchers have proposed a new care pathway for neonatal intensive care units. This pathway builds on existing care processes to address the difficulties faced by Māori families, with a strong focus on instilling whakawhanaunga through NICU policies and practices.

“Whakawhanaunga is about developing and maintaining meaningful relationships with people and spaces,” Dr Stevenson says. “Too often whānau were left alone or treated in a manner that left them feeling alienated in the very clinical NICU space. The care pathway has been developed on the basis that relationships with people and space facilitate flourishing wellbeing.”

The augmented care pathway includes standardising whānau involvement in the care of babies, greater access to a postnatal midwife, increased social worker support, fewer visiting restrictions for whānau, better access to transport and accommodation, and providing communication training for clinicians working with whānau.

“This care pathway aims to offer culturally responsive care and a range of support services that will reduce experiences of alienating and unresponsive care for whānau with their baby in NICU, leading to better outcomes for all involved,” Dr Stevenson says.

Dr Stevenson will work alongside the NICU at Auckland Hospital to assess the effectiveness and feasibility of this augmented care pathway

“We will be measuring the effectiveness of the pathway through interviews with whānau and NICU stakeholders, and we will also be collecting data on timely enrolment in primary care, vaccinations, and support services to see if these outcomes are improved for whānau and their pēpi through implementation of our care pathway.

“If our research shows that this new care pathway is feasible and acceptable to both whānau and NICU stakeholders, we hope to see it rolled out in neonatal intensive care units across New Zealand in the hope of improving outcomes for whānau and their pēpi,” Dr Stevenson says.

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