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, whois 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 withlittle effort or thought – unless they have asthma. An asthmaattack can turn the ordinary act of breathing into a breath-by-breath struggle that disrupts daily life and sends thousandsof wheezing, gasping people to the hospital every year.

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

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

“If children with persistent asthma don’t take theirmedication every day – because they feel OK or because they simply forget – a cold or some other trigger can causean attack,” says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a Seattle Children’sphysician whose research interest is health promotion anddisease prevention.

Asthma is the most commonchronic disease for kids17 and younger.

Website motivates parents

Michelle Garrison asthma

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

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

Christakis and colleague Dr. Michelle Garrison developeda website called My Child’s Asthma that gave parentspersonalized advice about their child’s symptoms andmedication, practical tips for reminding kids to take theirmedication (like putting the inhaler next to the toothbrush),and prompted them to set goals and chart their child’sprogress.

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

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

Wanted: host, sponsor

Asthma hits children especially hard because their airwaysare smaller, so the narrowing that occurs during an attack ismore dramatic. Kids with asthma are three times more likelyto miss school than those without and must frequently giveup regular activities during prolonged attacks. Over time,severe attacks can cause permanent lung damage. Asthmaalso hurts a healthcare system that must absorb the cost ofhospitalizations.

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

Dr. Dimitri Christakis

Nearly all of those problems could be avoided if morechildren took their medicine regularly. The My Child’s Asthmastudy demonstrated a possible solution. Unfortunately, thegovernment grant that funded the website and the studydid not include money to keep the website running.

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

Technology improves care

Christakis and Garrison got the idea for their study sevenyears ago. “I saw all these kids in the hospital with asthmaand knew 90% of them wouldn’t need to be there if theywere taking their medication,” Christakis says. “Traditionalapproaches to encouraging kids to take their medicationweren’t making much headway, so we decided to trythe Internet.”

Using technology is a powerful way to engage familiesand make a real difference. The key is to keep pace withthe constant change. “Medicine must connect with peoplewherever and however they’re most comfortable findingand sharing information,” says Christakis. “If we werestarting the study today, we’d probably base it on asmartphone app.”

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

Published in Connection magazine, April 2013