Website Helps Parents Improve Children’s Asthma Care

Seattle Children’s researchers use technology to open a window for parents to help their kids breathe more easily.

Dimitri Christakis asthma

“Medicine must connect with people wherever and however they’re most comfortable finding and sharing information,” says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, who is dedicated to finding ways for technology to improve the health and well-being of children and teens.

The average person takes about 20,000 breaths a day with little effort or thought – unless they have asthma. An asthma attack can turn the ordinary act of breathing into a breath-by-breath struggle that disrupts daily life and sends thousands of wheezing, gasping people to the hospital every year.

Yet it is very treatable. People with mild asthma use quick-relief medications when symptoms appear. People with persistent asthma can take daily controller medications to keep their airways open and ward off more serious attacks.

There’s just one problem. More than half of the 1.4 million or so children in the U.S. with persistent asthma either don’t receive daily medications or don’t use them as directed.

“If children with persistent asthma don’t take their medication every day – because they feel OK or because they simply forget – a cold or some other trigger can cause an attack,” says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a Seattle Children’s physician whose research interest is health promotion and disease prevention.

Asthma is the most common chronic disease for kids 17 and younger.

Website motivates parents

Michelle Garrison asthma

Dr. Michelle Garrison helped develop My Child’s Asthma, a website that gives parents personalized advice to help their children remember to take their medication every day.

But what if there was a way to help parents ensure their child takes their medication regularly?

Christakis and colleague Dr. Michelle Garrison developed a website called My Child’s Asthma that gave parents personalized advice about their child’s symptoms and medication, practical tips for reminding kids to take their medication (like putting the inhaler next to the toothbrush), and prompted them to set goals and chart their child’s progress.

More than 600 Seattle-area parents of kids with asthma participated in the year-long study, which found that children whose parents had access to the site were twice as likely to take their daily medications regularly.

“More than 80% of parents who had access to My Child’s Asthma wanted to continue using it after the study,” Christakis says. “Creating and tracking goals made parents feel more engaged in their child’s treatment. It’s the same principle as writing down what you eat each day as part of a weight-loss program. It’s a great motivator; it’s simple and it really works.”

Wanted: host, sponsor

Asthma hits children especially hard because their airways are smaller, so the narrowing that occurs during an attack is more dramatic. Kids with asthma are three times more likely to miss school than those without and must frequently give up regular activities during prolonged attacks. Over time, severe attacks can cause permanent lung damage. Asthma also hurts a healthcare system that must absorb the cost of hospitalizations.

“It’s frustrating when we can’t continue serving people once a study ends. It wouldn’t be expensive to keep the site alive. We just need a host and sponsor.”

Dr. Dimitri Christakis

Nearly all of those problems could be avoided if more children took their medicine regularly. The My Child’s Asthma study demonstrated a possible solution. Unfortunately, the government grant that funded the website and the study did not include money to keep the website running.

“It’s frustrating when we can’t continue serving people once a study ends,” Christakis says. “It wouldn’t be expensive to keep the site alive since it’s already built. We just need a host and sponsor.”

Technology improves care

Christakis and Garrison got the idea for their study seven years ago. “I saw all these kids in the hospital with asthma and knew 90% of them wouldn’t need to be there if they were taking their medication,” Christakis says. “Traditional approaches to encouraging kids to take their medication weren’t making much headway, so we decided to try the Internet.”

Using technology is a powerful way to engage families and make a real difference. The key is to keep pace with the constant change. “Medicine must connect with people wherever and however they’re most comfortable finding and sharing information,” says Christakis. “If we were starting the study today, we’d probably base it on a smartphone app.”

To learn how you can help, email Jennifer Lowe or call 206-987-4831.

Published in Connection magazine, April 2013