BERLIN — Specialized care for children with developmental disorders is now only the push of a button away with telemedicine at Atlantic General Hospital (AGH).
The new program connects patients with developmental care doctors hundreds of miles away through the use of audio and video technology.
According to AGH, close to five million children in the U.S. have some type of learning disorder or other developmental disability like Autism spectrum, Attention Deficit Disorder or trouble communicating. Locally, this represents hundreds of children who need a specialized kind of care that before telemedicine was only available across the bridge or in northern Delaware.
“We do have a lot of kids in this community that do need the services but can’t get them,” said Michael Franklin, President/CEO of AGH. “Or it’s really, really a pain for the patients to have to take that whole day, or the families to take that whole day to drive over to Baltimore to have the session with the physician and come back. It’s very disruptive to work life and to school life to do that.”
But with telemedicine doctors can video chat with patients just as they would during an in-person meeting. Virginia Harris, whose son Nolan Burns takes part in the program, admitted that she had some questions going into her first telemedicine meeting. But now she believes it to be equal to a face-to-face appointment with the added bonus of only needing to drive down the road to AGH instead of making a day-long trip to Baltimore and back.
“It’s really comfortable,” said Harris. “Of course, they can hear everything. It’s almost like they’re here.”
The video conferences can be used for initial patient evaluations as well as any follow-ups. The meetings vary from patient to patient but with young children, like Burns, the conference could include basic tests like identifying pictures, mimicking the actions of doctors, stacking blocks and rudimentary math exercises. Developmental health care services for children cover ages all the way up to 21.
Harris said that the whole thing has been a “learning experience” and one she is glad is offered at AGH. The program is made possible through a partnership with the Kennedy Krieger Institute Center for Developmental Learning (KKI). Institute. Doctors Deepa Menon and Paul Lipkin conducted a session with Burns last week, highlighting the amount of interaction made possible through telemedicine.
Dornese Whittington, Clinical Coordinator for Developmental, Learning and Autism Services at AGH, was also in the room with Harris and her son so that the family has someone to work with in person. Whittington is trained in the same methods as the KKI doctors.
Telemedicine at AGH is still in the pilot stage and is the first collaboration of its kind in the country. Franklin announced this month that the hospital will be receiving a $190,000 grant from Care First Blue Cross Blue Shield for the program, which will be expanding in the next few months. Already new equipment like a larger conference screen is in the works.
The pilot program began a few months ago as something small, according to Deborah Wolf, Director of Developmental, Learning and Autism Services at AGH.
“We started it out small so we could make sure that we had the need. The need is definitely there in Berlin,” she said.
The hospital wanted to make sure to iron out any concerns parents might have before using telemedicine. The most common concern is what Harris disclosed: that a video appointment would not be as useful as a physical meeting.
But as more patients take part in the program the responses have been positive. So far, eight patients have participated. Wolf stressed that all video sessions are tightly secure and encrypted.
The original six-month pilot program will now be extended with Franklin confirming that AGH will continue to gather more information about where developmental telemedicine in Berlin will go in the near future.