Advances in Technology Benefit the Youngest Patients

There are so many new technologies available for diagnosing, treating and interacting with patients, it can boggle the mind to imagine all their applications. But one field that stands to benefit especially from these tools is pediatrics. From smartphone apps that help diagnose ear infections to gene therapy for infants with grave illnesses, new tools are helping providers keep our littlest patients healthy.

“Technologies are just a way of extending human relationships,” said Christopher Neuharth, Director of Digital Health and Experience at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in a recent interview. “Right now [patients] have a very narrow kind of relationship with their doctors…and now you can extend that relationship. But you have you be very mindful of empathy when you look at your technology strategy.”

For decades, ear infections have been a common childhood ailment bringing families to the pediatrician for diagnosis and treatment, sometimes repeatedly. In an effort to make diagnosing ear infections simpler – but still accurate – scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle developed a system that uses a smartphone’s microphone and speaker, along with a handmade paper funnel, to detect signs of fluid in the middle ear. The study found the app was just as effective as a traditional otoscope at identifying fluid behind the eardrum of children aged 9 months to 17 years old.

Gene therapy can be controversial and extremely expensive, but it has come a long way in recent years, with a landmark approval this year for a therapy for infants with spinal muscular atrophy. The disease, which can be fatal by age two in its most severe form, now has a treatment that allowed babies in clinical tests to not only live longer, but also live without permanent breathing support. While questions remain regarding if and how insurers will cover these therapies, the Food and Drug Administration forecasts that it may approve up to 20 gene and cell therapy products each year by 2025, with hemophilia and Parkinson’s being likely future targets for drug manufacturers.

Another recent study noted that pediatric home care nurses for children with complex medical needs are in short supply, with lack of pay and training as two major concerns for growing the field. While some experts suggest using government healthcare dollars for nursing services, telemedicine may be another solution to the shortage: “Telemedicine initiatives…are especially important for the medical support of children and youth who live in remote areas or who are difficult to transport,” said Carolyn Foster, the study’s lead author and physician at Lurie Children’s and assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Payment for these services is important, especially since telemedicine has been shown to decrease emergency department use in children with medical complexity, which reduces healthcare costs.”

A group of healthcare leaders have come together in an attempt to improve access to funding and care for children with complex medical needs, through a project called CARE (Coordinating All Resources Effectively). The three-year, $23 million initiative improved family experiences while reducing ER visits by 26%, hospitalizations by 32% and spending by 2.6%. The group hopes that with support from the federal and state levels, they will be able to expand these savings and efficiencies to help the estimated 3 million children and infants with medically complex needs.

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