Telehealth for Autism Treatment? Missouri Program Sees Successes

Approximately one in 45 children in the United States, according to the most recent available data, have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. For those patients—and their families—living in rural communities or other underserved areas, it can be challenging to access many of the specialized services, including behavioral and speech therapists, that are necessary when living with the disorder. But can telehealth help to remove some of these barriers by training providers in remote areas? As Science Magazine first reported, the University of Missouri’s ECHO Autism program has been successfully doing just that, serving as a training hub for primary care providers seeking to better treat patients with autism since its launch in 2015. The program “[uses] high-quality, secure video conferencing technology to connect participating primary care clinics to a panel of experts,” a press release from the university explains.

Based at the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, the program is part of the broader Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) network, which began at the University of New Mexico, and is dedicated to increasing access to specialty medical care in underserved communities. As ECHO Autism’s director Kristin Sohl, a professor of child health at the university, explains, “The program effectively increases the capacity for health care in underserved communities, which means that families can get the answers they need without traveling or waiting to see a specialist.” In an article detailing the program’s results published in the Journal of Clinical Pediatrics, Sohl and her colleagues note that primary care providers are “in an ideal position to help improve care for” children with autism, given the regularity with which they tend to see patients. Yet they often tend to “lack confidence, knowledge, and training” on how best to diagnose and treat autism. To that end, ECHO Autism seeks to empower providers—and its early results have been overwhelmingly positive. “Participating primary care providers demonstrated significant improvements in confidence across all sectors of health care for children with autism, including screening and identification, assessment and treatment of medical and psychiatric conditions, and knowledge of and referral to available resources,” per the university’s press release.

ECHO Autism, which has received funding from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and the Missouri Telehealth Network, among other sources, is next set to expand to Alabama, Alaska, New Mexico, and Arizona. Notably, among those who will be served at the new program sites in the latter of the two states are Navajo communities. Sohl, for her part, sees the program going even further afield than that in its efforts to serve patients in underserved communities—indeed, program sites in Kenya are also being planned. “The success we have seen in Missouri and in other areas where ECHO Autism has been replicated means that this model can work in even more remote areas,” she said in the university’s press release. “Expanding the program from Africa to Alaska will help families around the world.”

Click here to read the article from Science Magazine on the ECHO Autism Program.

Click here to visit the ECHO Autism Web site.

Click here for the article on ECHO Autism from the Journal of Clinical Pediatrics (abstract only).

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