Few areas of healthcare are poised to be more impacted by telehealth technology than pediatric care.
Consider the numbers: The population of children in the United States will hover around 74 million through 2020, according to government projections. Most of those children rely on someone to help them when they get sick — to drive them to a doctor's office, to fill a prescription, or simply to stay home with them. A sick day doesn't just mean a day away from school; for many parents, that's a missed day of work.
Being able to access quality healthcare remotely can save parents a lot of time — and money, whether that's by getting immediate treatment for an ear infection, or making regular visits to a specialist.
Below are four ways telehealth is helping healthcare professionals deliver quality care to children when and where they need it, saving parents money as well as time spent traveling to a clinic or hospital.
A Better All-Around Health Infrastructure for Parents
AccessRx recently spotlighted CloudVisit, a company specializing in integrating home health devices, mobile apps and a video conferencing platform for pediatric doctors to run their own telemedicine programs. The author noted that the proliferation of these programs makes healthcare more convenient for families.
The fact that healthcare can be delivered in the family's home is key. This saves not only commute time and the complications that come with transporting sick kids, but also it removes the risk of exposing already sick kids to other germs in a doctor's office.
Further, telehealth, perhaps surprisingly, is helping to stem the tide of one of America's fastest-growing public health issues: childhood obesity.
"Many children with excess weight will grow up to be severely obese adults and will suffer from obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease," said Dr. Susan Woolford, the medical director of the weight management program at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.
This past spring, the Michigan program took a stand and announced a telehealth initiative to tackle childhood obesity. Dr. Woolford noted, "Our goal is to help teens and their families improve their health through lifestyle changes, and we believe that well-designed communications technology can help us connect with our patients and increase the likelihood of our patients achieving success." While their findings and the associated data, are limited to date, their research shows overwhelming promise for the decline of childhood obesity.
Telehealth has Proved Especially Useful for Some Children with Specific Needs
For children whose needs are more substantial than routine wellness or care of an acute illness, telehealth technology holds a great deal of promise.
St. Mary's Healthcare System for Children in New York, for example, received a grant of nearly $1 million in January 2015 for a pilot program to help reach "medically complex" patients, or those with multiple conditions and might be reliant on medical devices. This is especially important for the pediatric care community.
"The emerging population of children with medical complexities (more than 3 million) is growing at a rate of 5% nationally," HIT Consultant reports. That fraction of the pediatric population accounts for approximately 1/3 of all pediatric healthcare costs. The program seeks ways to cut those costs while still delivering quality care.
According to Dan Verel at MedCityNews, a similar program in Pennsylvania "led to a 44% reduction in risk for 30-day rehospitalizations among Medicare patients."
Children living with autism form another group that will benefit from telehealth's growth. Todd A. Ward, PhD, discusses a study that examined a Functional Communication Training (FCT) program for autistic children run by the children's parents, who were assisted remotely by behavioral consultants.
FCT used telehealth services to help parents to develop their children's communication skills. By eliminating the need for office visits, patients successfullly replaced problem behavior by 93.5%, while parents saved both time and an average of $277 per week.
Telehealth Eases the Troubles of Travel
For a variety of reasons, it can often be difficult for a child and family to get to a clinic or hospital. This is exactly why the UC Davis Children's Hospital in Sacramento put together a state-of-the-art telemedicine program in 2014.
Rather than a family from a rural area having to drive several hours to see a sub-specialist, they're able to go to their local physician and access a specialist using telemedicine. Pediatric Critical Care Dr. James Marcin told Northern California's News 10 last year, "That saves travel time, displacement time for the family. It also helps educate the primary care provider, who can learn from the specialist during the interviews."
Worldwide, telemedicine is reaching out to some of the most remote communities on our planet to provide quality healthcare to families who might otherwise totally lack access.
Cisco used its Telepresence technology help healthcare providers reach out to Sergipe in northern Brazil. All of the patients reported that they were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their consultations. "The results of this new report show us that bringing telehealth technology to Sergipe can make what may have seemed impossible before possible," Cisco Senior Manager for Global Healthcare Solutions Brantz Myers said.
For some children, the physical act of leaving home for medical care can be stressful. iMedicalApps shared an Australian study that sought to understand how telemedicine could fit into healthcare provision for both rural and urban Australians. One of the most important findings was that children with disabilities, specifically cerebral palsy, made up 40% of the patients using the telemedicine service. While it is unclear how that number compares to the demographics of the total number of patients, (i.e. whether 40% of all patients have CP in that clinic or whether the telemedicine practice is truly enriched for CP patients) investigators speculate that the difficulties that come with transporting patients with disabilities may be a key factor. From cost to travel time, telemedicine is an excellent resource that offers more health opportunities to those in need.
Telehealth in Schools Gives Healthcare Professionals Easier Access to Children Who Need Medical Attention
For some parents, telehealth at home might not be accessible or reliable. As a result, some communities are finding that having access to the technology in schools gives children the ability to conveniently connect with healthcare providers.
Danielle Bullen at the Advance Healthcare Network tells the story of one rural school district in Georgia that implemented a telehealth program because many parents couldn't take time off work for doctor's visits, and some children simply lived too far away from a local doctor.
"The rural county has 12 schools spread out over a wide area, with some being 15 miles from the closest doctor," Bullen said. "Children would come to school sick, be sent home, and then return to school sick the next day." "It was a vicious cycle," remarked the school district's nurse manager, Kathy Cole. After visiting a neighboring county program, the district's medical director introduced its own telemedicine program.
Quianta Moore, MD points out that school nurses play a significant role in preventative health, the triage of acute illnesses and managing chronic conditions. A cost-effective model for telehealth in schools would lean heavily on their skills.
Moore further noted, "Instead of creating a telehealth model focused on accessing physicians, a telehealth model that increases access to school nurses may produce similar outcomes and be less expensive — and students could still access outside physicians as needed via the telehealth equipment, and those physicians could be reimbursed through the students' health insurance."
Taylor Sisk, of North Carolina Health News, tells the story of Michael Robertson, a seventh-grader who has had a heart murmur since birth. Michael and his family regularly missed school and work for frequent appointments with his cardiologist in Asheville, more than 50 miles from home. Since the introduction of telehealth services, Michael's family has begun using a service called MY Health-e-Schools for follow-up appointments with their doctor.
"He loves it," Michael's father tells Sisk. "The experience is incredible. With this technology, they can look in your ears, down your throat, hear your heartbeat. They've got everything right there and you're looking right at the doctor." His father emphasizes how much time and money is saved by checking in from the school nurse's office, "instead of him missing a full day, he only misses part of a class."
Telehealth ultimately solves the time and travel requirements healthcare has traditionally placed on the parents of sick children. The result is easier access to more affordable, more convenient care and high hopes for the future.