How can we harness the power of imagination to innovate in the pediatric health space?

shutterstock_193115849Innovation in health today occurs incessantly. We see new ideas daily, and the progress we’re making is exciting. But, most of that progress is being made in adult health. While there are 75 million children in the United States today, too often we take the approach of treating children like “little adults,” despite the fact that they have an entirely different set of needs, and those needs change year by year. This lag in pediatric health innovation has inspired TEDMED’s Shirley Bergin to serve as a judge at this year’s inaugural Impact Pediatric Health Pitch Competition at South by Southwest Interactive. (By the way, if you’re innovating in pediatric health, you have a few more days to apply!)

So how can we harness the power of imagination to innovate in the pediatric health space? To gain a better understanding of the barriers facing innovation in pediatric health and how we can move forward, we interviewed a handful of pediatric innovators – including several TEDMED Hive alumni. Read on to hear what they had to say.

What do you think is the biggest problem facing pediatric health today? What can be done to address it?

  • Jessica Eisenberg, VoiceItt: Childhood disabilities are on the rise…Since we are a long ways off for a cure for many of these conditions, we can develop technology to greatly enhance their quality of life. We are living in an exciting period where the development in technology has the potential to break down the gaps between people with disabilities and society, and help them to be fully included in society.

  • Lynn E. Fiellin, play2PREVENT Lab: I think one of the biggest challenges facing pediatric health today, particularly around preventive health, is finding children and teens where they “are.” Healthy kids don’t engage in the health care system beyond “well-child” visits and kids with chronic medical conditions have a number of other issues to address. Beyond vaccination during early childhood, the provision of preventive care…is fairly limited. Innovations in technology focused on preventive care in teens allow us to engage teens and provide them with messages and skill-building to develop behaviors that can lead to lifelong health.

  • Kyle J. Rose, mySugr: One major challenge for parents and healthcare professionals alike is knowing how much independence to give to children regarding the management of their health. How much and at what point?…Educational initiatives…often result in outstanding clinical outcomes, not to mention increased quality of life for both the child and their family.

  • M. Jackson Wilkinson, Kinsights: Misinformation. Parents are in a state of constant information starvation, and as healthcare tightens its belt, they get less face time with healthcare professionals than ever before, and the advice they get from friends, family, and the Internet is usually not vetted. As with so many other fields, pediatrics (and parenting) is in need of a strong dose of information literacy, and it’s innovators who can help develop tools to help patients and parents find the right information for them, rather than playing a dangerous game of telephone.

Why do you think innovation in the pediatric health space often lags behind other areas? 

  • Amy Baxter, Buzzy: In pediatrics, patients aren’t as articulate about what bothers them in healthcare. You don’t have the option of “voting with your feet” when you’re carried to a doctor’s appointment in a car seat. And since children don’t make the financial decisions, they don’t drive the marketplace. Many pediatric products have to come from pediatricians or parents who see a need and have the empathy and time to make them reality.

  • Kyle Rose, mySugr: The pediatric health environment has stricter regulations, for good reason. However, unfortunately in the world of medicine this can add a significant barrier to enter this market. This is true whether it’s a start-up with a new medical device or even a major Pharma company.

  • Roberto Flores, SmileTrain: Children do not have a voice in science, in the government or in a medical office. They need others to speak for them…This is a unique aspect of pediatric care that affects everything from innovation to financial support for children’s health…Innovation in the pediatric space can lay the groundwork for innovation in the adult medical arena and vice versa.

  • M. Jackson Wilkinson, Kinsights: Everything is a little more complicated for a pediatric patient. Parents are often more protective with their child’s health than an adult might be with their own, so it can be difficult to get cooperation for even simple experimental care. Couple that with increasingly complicated privacy regulations, and it’s often just enough to dissuade interested entrepreneurs and researchers.

What can be done to spread the notion that children are not just “little adults” in terms of medical needs?

  • Jessica Eisenberg, VoiceItt: Because it’s more difficult to understand the symptoms and needs of a child, we cannot make a diagnosis and rehabilitation plan in a short office visit. More time and effort must be invested with children to build up their confidence in expressing their needs. The more understanding we have, the more we can spread this notion.

  • Lynn Fiellin, play2PREVENT Lab: The use of innovative methods of reaching kids is much more likely to have greater impact, given that kids now are growing up with innovative technologies and they are “hard-wired” to interact with and respond to them. Demonstrating the successful use of new innovations in pediatric health will help to show stakeholders that innovative health care for kids needs to be designed specifically for them, not only to reach them, but to have a sustainable effect.

  • Kyle J. Rose, mySugr: The healthcare system will need a fundamental shift from short-term to long-term visions, in particular from the payer perspective. Young people do have specific needs. We need to address those needs and also be there to support them as they transition from pediatrics to adults, a time period when they need us most and where patients often fall through the cracks of the healthcare system.

  • Roberto Flores, SmileTrain: A child is different at all phases of development. A person who holds a newborn infant, plays with a child in preschool, plays soccer with a middle schooler and debates with a teenager, will realize that at different ages children’s bodies work differently, heal differently, have different needs, and are often affected by distinct medical problems. As pediatric care involves so many different types of “people” the need for innovation in the pediatric space is that much greater.

How can we better assess pediatric healthcare needs and encourage companies to innovate in them?

  • Jessica Eisenberg, VoiceItt: Bringing together technological companies and associations that have a deep understanding the pediatric population is the key element needed to instigate innovation.

  • Amy Baxter, MMJ Labs: Parents are the best motivators.  Educate them about what is really important for health, and do it transparently…Ignoring parents’ intelligent regard toward their healthcare decisions makes the healthcare providers look suspect, and parents seek other sources of information.

  • Lynn E. Fiellin, play2PREVENT Lab: I believe the best way to assess healthcare needs, in kids, and all individuals, is to review the literature, [and] interview the stakeholders…Once you identify the areas in need, companies need to recognize that looking at new ways of reaching individuals, thinking outside the box, is much more likely to have the desired effect of engaging this population and connecting with them about their most relevant healthcare issues.

  • Kyle J. Rose, mySugr: We believe that the evidence is already there. It is critical to show payers and government systems that if young people are healthy when young that this leads to higher productivity overall. The health economics speak incredibly loudly. Governments could encourage companies via special programs and funding for such outcome-based initiatives.

What inspires you to work in this area?

  • Jessica Eisenberg, VoiceItt: Giving a child back his voice, witnessing an expression of love, a joke or saying he is hungry or cold is one of the most incredible and emotional sights you can witness. Few things are more rewarding than hearing individual stories of connection, love and gratitude on a daily basis.

  • Donna Brezinski, Little Sparrows Technologies: As both a pediatrician and a mother, I am inspired to innovate in the area of pediatric health because in many ways I see children as our role models for innovation. Children have very few predefined expectations of what the world should be, and as such, are boundless in their view of what is possible…As innovators we should emulate their openness to imagine so that we can envision what our world could be rather than be restricted by what it is.  Innovating for children grants us freedom to be hopeful for the future.

  • Lynn E. Fiellin, play2PREVENT Lab: Before I moved into this field, I was doing intervention research with many young adults struggling with the consequences of risk behaviors they had engaged in during adolescence—specifically risky sex and drug and alcohol use. I thought if we could “turn back the clock” and teach them the necessary preventive health skills when they were young teens, we could help them to avoid these serious health consequences.

  • M. Jackson Wilkinson, Kinsights: The families. Parents and families devote so much time, energy, and resources to doing their best to raise a happy, healthy child. When you see how devoted they are, it’s hard not to want to clear aside everything standing in their way. Sometimes it’s something as simple as making sure you don’t ask the same questions over and over, and other times it’s incredibly sophisticated, but there’s a ton of work to do, so I’m happy to pick up my shovel and get to it.