Designing for tiniest patients leads to industry honor, innovative gift

This piece is presented by Interstate Office Products.

When Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center renovated its neonatal intensive care unit, the experience of hundreds of families and their babies changed dramatically.

It’s about to do so again.

First, though, came an intensive, hands-on effort to build the most family-centered NICU possible.

Before the expanded unit opened a couple of years ago, there were 27 infant beds in an open area with minimal privacy.

“There were no walls separating the babies. It was close quarters,” said Meghan Foster, a clinical nurse educator who has worked in the NICU for 13 years.

“We had screens we would pull around the beds, but if you had one dad come through he could see right over, so there really was no privacy. And there was no way for families to stay in the room.”

Working with Interstate Office Products, Avera’s NICU rooms were completely redesigned.

“The main idea was to make it more comfortable for families,” said Gary Gaspar, president and CEO of the business. “The environment needed to be more supportive of families because it’s an intensive period of time the family is here. And there are no longer visiting hours – it’s pretty much 24-7 that they need to support the activities of care partners and family members.”

To start, private rooms for 42 babies were established. After that, furnishing them became the focus.

A family rocks their baby in the Avera NICU.

A rocker recliner was added after IOP brought in a model for Avera to test.

“That was very important. They wanted to see how the mechanisms worked,” said Reed Scott, a workplace specialist for IOP who worked on the project. “They wanted to see how intuitive it was, and they were concerned about the rocker mechanism being smooth and easy to operate.”

Everyone from parents to volunteers rocks babies in the NICU, so the recliners are a welcome addition, Foster said.

“They’re awesome,” she said. “We can easily and comfortably have people rock. Some of our patients will be here three or four days to rule out infection, but others are here up to three or four months, so these get a lot of use.”

Research-based approach

The big difference in the new NICU is the family’s ability to stay overnight. And developing the right piece of furniture for the stay began with hours of observational research. It’s one thing to design products based on what you think people need; it’s an entirely different approach to design them based on what people really do.

“There’s a huge gap between what people say they do and what they actually do,” Gaspar said.

Interstate Office Products is a premier partner of Steelcase, the leading manufacturer of furniture for offices, hospitals and classrooms. Gaspar sits on the product advisory council for Steelcase Health.

A decades-long relationship between IOP and Avera connects Steelcase researchers to the health system for weeks of direct observation. It’s common for researchers to spend a full week on site, sleeping in lobbies and observing everything from the emergency department to the eCARE center.

“Avera has really opened up their campus because they want these types of solutions,” Gaspar said. “The health care environment is the harshest environment we work in, in terms of what products are put through, and through this partnership we were able to develop something that benefits everyone.”

The direct research led Steelcase to develop Surround, a sleeper sofa for families staying overnight in hospitals. That piece of furniture took top gold honors at NeoCon, the office furniture industry’s most prestigious competition, and it finished second in the best-in-show category against more than 400 new products.

The Steelcase Surround sofa

The sleeper sofa is a revolutionary product, developed “to support a range of activities for the family – dining, working, playing and sleeping,” Gaspar explained. “If you’re there for days, you can’t disengage from work entirely, so you have to be able to get work done, sleep overnight potentially and share a meal.”

It’s equipped with electrical and USB access, recognizing the importance of power and light, and includes open storage because research found when items are tucked in drawers they get left behind. It folds into a bed “literally by pulling the back cushion down,” Gaspar said. “And it’s also designed with the clinician in mind. It doesn’t intrude into the room. Some sofas pull out into the room, and if a clinician needs to get in quick or at night, they’re tripping over it.”

The research, done at Avera, led to the new prototype sofa for Steelcase that will be sold worldwide, he added.

“That shows what a true partnership is. It’s not about going out thinking of buying a bed as a transaction. It’s thinking and acting strategically as a partnership.”

The relationship goes even deeper, said Dick Molseed, Avera’s executive vice president of strategy and governance.

“They call it a strategic relationship, but IOP shares more than that with Avera. They have become invested in our quality outcomes, and our patient, guest and staff satisfaction,” Molseed said. “They are with us every step of the way, and it is obvious because they back it up with financial support. IOP is integral to the mission of Avera.”

Giving back

The leaders of Interstate Office Products feel a strong personal connection to the mission of Avera. Gaspar and his sister, Sheila Casiello, were born at Avera McKennan. Their mother worked there for 46 years. They were taught by sisters in Catholic school. His mother-in-law volunteers to rock babies in the Avera NICU.

So when it became clear working on the new NICU that one of Avera’s wishes would go unfilled, the family stepped forward.

“They really wanted webcams,” Gaspar explained. “Babies are there for months sometimes, and from a practical standpoint the family can’t stay there, especially if they’re from out of town. They have to go back to jobs or other kids, so it’s a difficult time to be away. And for grandparents and aunts and uncles who live around the country, it’s not practical to go to the hospital. This provided a link and a way to stay connected to their baby.”

A screenshot of how a baby appears on the webcam system.

Interstate Office Products, with Gary and Theresa Gaspar and Sheila Casiello, made a lead gift of $40,000. When combined with a NICU fundraising campaign, the $100,000 needed to install the revolutionary webcam system was secured.

A camera is mounted in each NICU room. To access live streaming video, visitors must establish a username and password. Then, they can watch the baby live on any device that supports streaming video. When staff members are caring for the baby, the system briefly pauses while a message is played for visitors.

“We just got them all installed, they’re super easy to use, and our staff is excited,” Foster said. “We have been talking with some families already and they are very excited about it. We’re very thankful we get to offer this to our families.”


The cameras started operating this month.

“We could tell it was something they really wanted, so it was perfect to help them get it,” Gaspar said. “Their mission is an integral part of our personal life and our professional life.”

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Designing for tiniest patients leads to industry honor, innovative gift

When Avera McKennan renovated its neonatal intensive care unit, the experience of hundreds of families and their babies changed dramatically. It’s about to do so again.

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