Digital Health Advancing Care For Children and Families Facing Health Challenges

Some of the most exciting and promising innovations in digital health today center around the youngest of demographics—children.

There is no shortage of technology on the market aimed at children and parents. From “smart” changing pads with a mobile app to track infant weight gain and other metrics, to a stuffed animal with hidden sensors to measure heart rate and oxygen saturation, there are many products designed to make parenting a little easier and a bit less scary.

Technological advancements in healthcare are also tackling more serious issues for children. As we know, children are not immune from the difficulties and complications that come with a serious illness, chronic disease or disability. The statistics of how many children and parents are affected by these situations are alarming.

Ten to twenty million children and adolescents in the United States have some form of chronic illness or disability. According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), “The rate of chronic health conditions among children in the United States increased from 12.8% in 1994 to 26.6% in 2006, particularly for asthma, obesity, and behavior and learning problems” resulting in missed school days and the need for ongoing medical attention.

However, advancements in digital health hold promise to greatly benefit children living with serious conditions and their families.

Technology Advancing Cutting-Edge Research

Chronic disease is already difficult for adults to manage, so for children it can be extraordinarily challenging. Families have to figure out how to manage the health of their sick child, while caring for other family members, juggling career commitments and meeting escalating healthcare costs.

Often times, patients with chronic illness are required to take several prescriptions at different intervals through the day to keep the disease in check—a tall order for anyone but especially for young children and their parents.

Working towards finding a solution, in 2016, Children’s Health in Dallas began testing a new technology—”digitized medicine”—which will, according to a Dallas Morning News story, “track how well patients stick to complex medication schedules in real time, from inside the patient’s body, and allow immediate feedback from the patient to the provider.”

From inside the patient’s stomach, a digitized pill, manufactured by Proteus Digital Health, with a small sensor can track if a medication has been taken, detect changes in patient vital signs, even physical activity and sleep patterns. All of this data is communicated to a patch worn by the patient and then transmitted to a cloud-based server. Within minutes clinical staff can download onto a web interface to review. Patients also are given iPads so they can view the information. Patients and their care teams can tell if the wrong quantity of medication has been taken at the wrong time—helping patients adhere to sensitive regimes.

The parents of a 5-year old girl enrolled in the study hoped “that by familiarizing her with the technology at an early age, they can better prepare her for the lifetime routine she will have to maintain to keep her kidney functioning.”

In 2016, Welkin Health partnered with Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota to create an advanced technology platform to support the hospital’s clinical trial aimed at improving the health outcomes of children with type 1 diabetes. Welkin’s software served to enhance the care team’s ability to communicate with patients and their families at home and optimized efficiency by providing a customized workflow to the study’s protocol.

With a 2014 study confirming that from 2001 to 2009, Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes drastically increased among children and adolescents across racial groups, innovative solutions, like Welkin’s and Proteus’, are needed more than ever to support and progress the work of researchers and care teams to make the disease more manageable for children and families.  

New Technologies Create Support for Working Parents

“The number of children with disabilities has been climbing for more than a decade and that means that a growing number of employees are struggling to care for a child with special health care needs,” according to Workforce. Additionally, “about 1 in 20 employees are caring for a child with a disability or chronic illness.”

Caring for a child with a disability or chronic illness can be a full-time job and emotionally exhausting. The high cost of care and medical expenses back many parents into a corner. Dual incomes are a necessity but the child’s special needs require frequent attention.

A solution from consulting firm Mercer and Rethink aims to help parents “manage behavioral problems, communicate better with school districts, and provides access to remote clinical consultations in addition to other supports” through online, video-based treatment programs offered to them by their employers.

Employers wanting to be proactive to support employees who have children with special needs is part of a new trend as we see autism and other developmental disabilities become more prevalent. Employers and digital health companies alike are realizing that stressed out, worried employees are resulting in low productivity and frequent absences, prompting them to identify and develop solutions.

The National Business Group on Health reported that “parents of children with a disability lose around five hours of work weekly, totaling about 250 hours per year, which translates to an average of $3,000 to $5,000 per person in lost productivity for businesses.”

For these parents, nothing is more important than the well-being of their child. Digital health innovation can create opportunities to help employers foster workplaces that are more supportive of and offer useful resources for employees with children that require special needs. Parents will have peace of mind while they are at work and companies will have increased productivity and lower healthcare costs.

Wearables and Apps Make Their Mark

Wearables and apps have blazed their own trail in helping children and families better manage and cope with serious illness.

Around 17 percent of American children ages 2 to 19 years old are obese. To some, technology may be partly to blame for creating a generation of more sedentary kids, but wearable fitness and activity trackers have become strong allies in the fight to help obese children, who are at an elevated risk for diabetes and other comorbidities, to manage their disease and become more fit.

Today’s devices encourage kids to be more active by enabling them to track their fitness progress—steps walked, miles traveled, hours of sleep—some even create a social network of friends who they can compete with on physical challenges.

Parents that get involved increase the chances that the child will remain engaged. According to Dr. Zoey Goore, president of the Northern California chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “If kids are using these devices with their families, they are a great tool. Even if the children are not competitive about fitness, it just encourages them to be more engaged in activities.”

What about advancements for babies who are too young to verbalize responses? The app GoCheck Kids, developed by Gobiquity Mobile Health, takes this into account enabling primary care physicians to screen for amblyopia, the leading cause of vision loss in children, on their smartphone using photoscreening features.

According to MobiHealthNews, “The company said that traditional vision testing that pediatricians perform with visual acuity charts requires a verbal response, which makes it impractical for younger patients.” The app identifies risk factors in babies as young as 6 months ensuring no child slips through the cracks because of young age.

A Natural Connection to Technology

Today’s children are “digital natives”—having never known a world without the Internet. They don’t approach digital utilization with fear or big learning curve, unlike other populations. This in itself is a huge advantage for innovators, providers and patients, who don’t have to hurdle barriers to reap the benefits of what digital health can offer.

Most children living with serious or chronic illness are managing the disease primarily under the tutelage of their parents. They are too young to understand how these digital health tools are helping them to maintain their health and well-being—as it should be.

However, the crux of chronic disease is that many of these kids will continue to have to live with and manage their disease as they age, at times into adulthood.
The early utilization and familiarity with these impactful digital tools puts these kids ahead of the curve and builds a foundation that will enable them to self-manage successfully for as long as needed to remain healthy.