Designing the Internet of Maternity Ward (IoMW)

A s a non-medically-trained human, I take great comfort in believing that the hospital is a high-tech place. Whether it’s providing assistance stitching up a scrape, prodding a mysterious pain, or responding to an out-of-the-blue accident, the hospital stands as a bastion of medical expertise and skill greater than my own—a place I can go when I don’t have the answers or tools to fix an important medical situation. A hospital’s tag team of trained doctors and medical technologies makes it my instinctual top choice to prepare for, and go through, childbirth.

For many mothers in the United States, particularly those with unique circumstances or complications, the hospital is an invaluable resource for a safe and comfortable pregnancy and delivery. Doctors, nurses, midwives, and staff are the most trusted lines of support and defense for mothers and families through preparation, labor, postnatal care, and discharge. However, even a hospital can be strained by the volume, cadence, and urgency of different family cases—creating situations that may lead to mistakes, burnout, and even disharmony between families and care providers. In the United States in particular, there are further disparities in care determined by region, socioeconomic status, and—most bleakly—race.

The maternity ward currently sits at a scientifically and culturally important inflection point:

High Adoption: In the United States, 98.74% of births happen in hospitals (CDC, 2012).

Consumer Shift: Women and families giving birth in hospitals have increasing digital expectations of their journey; more than 75% of patients expect to use digital health services today or in the near future (McKinsey, 2015).

Technology Evolution: Internet-of-Things (IoT) technologies and artificially intelligent digital assistants are reconfiguring environments in our homes, automobiles, retail centers, and even workplaces. The expectation of intelligent infrastructures is extending into other industries, including healthcare.

At W+K Lodge, we were inspired by our teams of female engineers and designers to explore the future of reproductive and new family care. As we began work on this series of Frontiers, our fundamental questions considered how technology could brace and extend, rather than replace, the expert care that midwives, doctors, and nurses provide. Nowhere is this technological support needed more than the high-volume, high-intensity, environment of a hospital’s maternity ward.

Thus, one of our fundamental briefs was to consider how Internet-of-Things technologies, increasingly prevalent in home and in retail, could be applied to the maternity ward. In this design sprint, we propose seven concepts that streamline, offload, connect, or otherwise bolster the care offered by providers to infants and new families, creating an Internet of Maternity Ward (IoMW) that extends from delivery rooms to neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) and discharge centers.

AR Ultrasound (AR-U)

AR-U is a mobile application that pairs with an ultrasound device to visualize ultrasound imaging in 3D space for pregnant mothers or traveling healthcare professionals in remote or rural areas. Parents can use this device and application to understand their baby’s health within the womb and provides visual callouts to what is viewed in the ultrasound, for instance a baby’s body part and growth stage.

Labor Yet?

Labor Yet? is a mobile care equipment kit that allows mothers to perform self-guided tests at home to determine when they’re ready to come to the hospital for delivery. Labor Yet? contains a CTG device or Fetal Doppler and well as a contraction timer, all connected to an eCare platform where maternity staff can receive the test results and constantly stay connected with their patients as they prepare for delivery.

Room Service

While managing several beds within the maternity wing, some hospitals experience difficulty tracking equipment, supplies, and comfort materials such as pillows, as well a confirming their sanitation and cleaning. Room Service is a mobile application for maternity ward staff members to help keep inventory of medical supplies and optimize an efficient system for planning availability of hospital beds and supplies for mothers in labor.

DNA(ID)

Newborns are commonly screened for genetic conditions and full newborn genetic sequencing is increasingly available. While DNA collection is important for medical testing, it can also be used for identity security, particularly in high-traffic environments like hospitals. DNA(ID) takes the most basic indicator of identity — DNA — and builds an in-hospital tracker that confirms where a newborn is in the hospital and the medical treatment they receive, as well as any associated items such as medications and mother’s breastmilk. DNA(ID) can live on as an evolving tools to document a child’s medical history and records.

Maternity Ward Monitor

When a child is transferred from delivery to NICU, separation can be traumatic for baby and family. Maternity Ward Monitors enable a secure, virtual connection between baby and family, transcending the NICU. Visual stimulus helps breastfeeding mothers let down their milk, while regular notifications let parents know their babies are sleeping and eating. Parents can bond with baby by sending audio messages and songs that play near or inside and infant’s incubator.

Kangaroo Care

Kangaroo Care is a connected incubator paired with a mobile application that sends notifications to parents of children in the NICU to encourage timing of kangaroo care sessions, or skin-to-skin contact between parent and child. Within the NICU, a connected incubator will keep track of a baby’s sleep and eat patterns and then analyze the information, sending notifications for nearby parents (either in the hospital, or traveling to the hospital for visits) to suggest optimal kangaroo care time and the suggested duration for parents. This information will also be communicated to NICU staff as they advise parents through care and discharge.

Connected Pumping Pillow (CPP)

When starting breastfeeding, it’s common for mothers to experience difficulty “letting down” (producing milk) especially if the mother is separated from a child (i.e. if the child is the NICU, if a mother has returned to work). CPP is a stimulatory pillow that warms up and provides haptic feedback to mothers from their baby in the NICU to help them feel connected to the baby for let down when pumping. The baby’s movements are recorded through computer vision processing and then translated into vibrations for the mother to experience.

We hope to use this design exercise, and others like them, to inspire brand and organizations to create better tools and support networks for families as they plan, begin, and grow. Interested in hearing more about any of these concepts, or in partnering to make them a reality? Reach out to the W+K Lodge Frontiers team at frontiers@wklodge.com!

Illustration by Daniel Savage.

In this Reproductive Care series of W+K Lodge Frontiers, our team of designers and engineers explores how brands can create better products and experiences for women, children, and their partners. Join us as we consider what it means to deliver not just utility but care along the reproductive journey. If you’re interested in collaborating on any projects or learning more about W+K Lodge, email us at frontiers@wklodge.com.