Dana McCarty, DPT and assistant professor in the Division of Physical Therapy, has received a career-development award from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), in order to research parent-administered physical therapy and massage techniques among extremely preterm infants, or babies born at fewer than 28 weeks old. This grant will be an administrative supplement to UNC-Chapel Hill’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS)-funded KL2 program. McCarty is among one of the first physical therapists in the country to receive this award.

McCarty said physical therapists play a major, yet often unrecognized, role in supporting extremely preterm infants and their parents through non-pharmacologic and developmentally supportive care during and after long-term hospital stays. To that end, McCarty has developed the Therapist Education and Massage for Parent-Infant Outcomes program (TEMPO) in order to train and support parents to deliver physical therapy interventions such as massage and developmental play during hospitalization and once the family returns home. The effects of massage have not been researched in babies born at fewer than 28 weeks old. More specifically, the KL2 grant will analyze the feasibility of the TEMPO program in the Neonatal Critical Care Center at UNC Children’s and will collect measures of parent confidence, parent-infant bonding, and infant developmental outcomes.

The NCCIH, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, support of McCarty’s work will enable her to become a clinical researcher, all in an effort to empower clinicians to research issues they encounter in patient care. The KL2 grant will support 75 percent of McCarty’s salary for three years, as well as $25,000 in research support per year. Morris Weinberger, PhD and principal investigator of the UNC-CH’s KL2 program, said he is thrilled to have McCarty join the KL2 team. “She is passionate about improving the health outcomes of newborns, and we are confident that she will gain the research skills and experience to develop and evaluate innovative strategies such as TEMPO to do so,” Weinberger said. “Having a physical therapist leading this type of research is rare, which makes her project especially exciting.”

McCarty’s TEMPO program stemmed from her work in neonatal physical therapy, a burgeoning area of research as more preterm infants have better odds of survival thanks to other medical advances, leading to implications for the infant neuro-muscular system. Ideally, TEMPO will enhance standards of care by allowing for education sessions, follow-up appointments, and measuring outcomes. The research is testing whether a program like TEMPO can reduce depression and anxiety in parents, in addition to long-term implications of the behavior-motor effects of preterm birth.

“Neonatal physical therapy has to catch up with those medical advances,” McCarty said. “We know about long-term implications for physical therapy, but we don’t know what best practice looks like yet in terms of frequency of therapy and therapeutic intervention.”

To evaluate the TEMPO program, McCarty will recruit preterm infants and their families at UNC Children’s. She will evaluate infants and work to empower parents to care for their infants. As the infants grow, they will attend follow-up clinics where McCarty and her team will perform standardized tests.

“I do believe that parents who have the capacity to do hands-on care with their infant can make a difference in the long term,” McCarty said. “It might seem like basic activity types of things, but for parents who have gone through what they’ve gone through, for their infants to demonstrate that type of flourishing is no small thing.”

Stephen Hooper, PhD, associate dean and chair of the Department of Allied Health Sciences (DAHS), said McCarty’s innovative intervention program has the potential to revolutionize how infants are cared for.

“This KL2 award will facilitate the career development of one of the young investigators of our future,” Hooper said. “I am proud of Dr. McCarty and am sincerely appreciative to all of those involved in creating the environment for her success.”

She hopes that various physiological measures in children and adults, including the presence of cortisol in saliva which can indicate stress, will be reduced by the act of massage.

“Massage brings the experience into something that’s more enjoyable for the family. Anything we can do to normalize their experience is worth it.”

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number KL2TR002490. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

The Division of Physical Therapy is housed in the Department of Allied Health Sciences, where McCarty is a board-certified pediatric clinical specialist and is the pediatric physical therapy residency director at the UNC School of Medicine.