St. Elizabeth Hospital applied for state certification for a Level III nursury and neonatal intensive care unit.

Greater Cincinnati hospitals get much attention for their high-tech medical wonders, wunderkind surgeons and ground-breaking research. Quietly, however, they’ve also put the Queen City on the map as one of the safest cities in the nation in which to bring life into the world.

Three local hospitals — Good Samaritan, University Hospital and Children’s Hospital Medical Center — already claim Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Units, the highest standard of expert care of at-risk newborns. A fourth, St. Elizabeth Medical Centers in Northern Kentucky, may soon add Level III status.

The hospitals have also put renewed focus on prenatal health of mothers, which can decrease the number of birthing problems for their children and drastically cut their medical problems as they grow up. Along with their advocacy of new medical treatments for those problems, local hospitals are at the forefront of care for both mom and baby.

Good Samaritan Hospital has helped more babies start their lives on a healthy path than any other hospital in Ohio. The hospital delivered 7,224 babies in 2008, the third straight year they’ve led the state’s hospitals in births, according to the Ohio Department of Health’s latest vital statistics report.

As impressive as that number is, it only speaks to a fraction of the hospital’s recognized excellence care for newborns and their mothers.

Along with its nationally recognized NICU, the hospital is also a leader in heavily investing in the health of mothers with an inpatient special care obstetrics unit for pregnant mothers with complications, the Seton Center (which specializes in high-risk pregnancies) and the newest focus of prenatal support, the Perinatal Research Center.

The Perinatal Research center, formed in conjunction with TriHealth’s Hatton Institute, focuses on environmental, genetic and lifestyle risk factors in order to reduce and potentially prevent birth defects and complications. The nationally recognized effort seeks to develop centers of excellence throughout the country to battle those problems, with a new focus every few years.

First up on the center’s target list: Maternal obesity.

“Obesity is now almost an epidemic for the U.S. and a source of diverse and complex problems as far as pregnancy is concerned,” says Dr. Tariq Siddiqi, interim director of the center. Good Samaritan is in a unique position to undertake this key effort in pregnancy and obesity research because it is the largest provider of maternity services in the region and because of its partnership with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. This relationship allows Good Samaritan and CCHMC researchers to test the “Barker” hypothesis that all adult disease starts in the fetus in utero, and then establish why a healthy prenatal environment is essential for life-long good health.

University Hospital, which features the area’s oldest and most experienced Level III NICU, has also banked heavily on “total care” for both babies and mothers.

Within the last year, the hospital has completed construction of new $2.9 million Center for Women’s Health, including OB-GYN facilities on the first floor of the Hoxworth Building, and an expensive renovation of the hospital’s Center for Perinatal Medicine as well as the Labor and Delivery/Postpartum facilities.

At the same time, however, University remains the gold standard in care for premature babies and other high-risk newborns not only locally, but internationally, as well. The latest development in that reputation is the hospital’s expertise in a non-invasive process to help at-risk newborns breathe on their own and reduce lung-related illness later in life.

University Hospital is recognized as a center of excellence in the use of Bubble Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, an alternative treatment for newborns with underdeveloped lungs or problems breathing on their own. Instead of traditional intubation, which places a plastic tube down into the newborn’s lungs and having a machine help them breathe, the Bubble CPAP creates constant pressure to the infant’s airway via two small nasal tubes. The technique decreases the work of breathing, allowing newborns to breathe on their own and their lungs to develop normally.

The process, which can take years to master, has been shown to nearly eliminate bronchopulmonary dysplasia, a common lung disorder in preterm newborns that can lead to a lifetime battle with asthma. It also drastically cuts trauma associated with traditional intubation.

University staffers have become leading proponents of Bubble CPAP, having learned its use directly from its founder, Dr. Jen-Tien Wung, at New York’s Columbia Hospital.

“It can be very traumatic to intubate a baby,” says Pam Krieg, RN3, one of University’s nurses who now travels throughout the world teaching Bubble CPAP’s use. “You’re inserting something foreign down into the baby’s lungs. It’s very invasive. Even if you’re skilled at it, you can damage the trachea or larynx, or both.”

And because a mechanical ventilator can sometimes force more air into a baby’s lungs than they can handle, other lung problems can result.

But with the Bubble CPAP, “you get a better CO2/O2 gas exchange, and the baby gets exactly the amount of air its needs. It’s breathing on its own,” Krieg explains. “The result is fewer lung problems, and we get babies out earlier, back home to mom and dad.”

Krieg and other University staffers have been to medical centers throughout the U.S., including the prestigious Duke University Hospital, and have entertained invitations from India, Nigeria and a host of other countries to teach the use of Bubble CPAP.

Meanwhile, the area’s reputation for infant care could take another leap forward this month, when St. Elizabeth Medical Center might add its own Level III NICU.

Following last year’s consolidation with the St. Luke hospitals, St. Elizabeth stopped delivering babies at its Fort Thomas location and soon will cease deliveries at its Florence hospital, moving its birthing centers to Edgewood. To go with the consolidation, the hospital also applied to the state for certification of its own Level III nursery and neonatal intensive care unit at its Edgewood campus. Hospital officials say that decision could arrive this month.

Approval would not only mean a boost in the quality of care, but St. Elizabeth could become the most prolific delivery hospital in the state of Kentucky. The hospital projects 5,000 births at its birthing centers this year, and the addition of the Level III NICU could deliver another 500 babies annually to its nursery.

Krieg sees it all as a blessing.

“We’re so lucky here in Cincinnati,” she explains. “I talk to so many parents who are expecting, and they worry, but the level of care in this city, not only for newborns but moms and dads, too, is phenomenal. It would be hard to find better care anywhere else.” ■