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Health Information Breaking Through: Can Smartphones Help Kids Manage Their Asthma?

Doctors hope an app can motivate kids to follow their asthma m edication schedules.

Pediatric asthma rates in Illinois are among the highest in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asthma rates for children ages 10 to 17 in Illinois were higher than those in 38 other states. And from 2001 through 2009, asthma rates in Illinois rose the most among black children, increasing by nearly 50 percent. That's an unsettling reality that could be helped by one of kids' favorite breaks from reality: video games.

Researchers at Rush University Medical Center, in collaboration with computer scientists, electrical engineers, and communications and media arts specialists at the University of Illinois at Chicago's electronic visualization laboratory,are looking at whether a smartphone app, which includes games that reward the use of daily asthma medication, can help low-income, minority kids better manage their asthma.

"Kids love technology," says Giselle Mosnaim, MD, an allergy and immunology specialist at Rush who is part of a group leading the study. "They spend an enormous amount of time using computers and mobile phones to listen to music and play video games. We believe that taking into account their existing use of technology will be a great way to motivate them to take their medication."

Inhaler medications are fitted with sensors that send signals to the study participants’ smartphones whenever a full dose is used at the correct time. The participants, who are between the ages of 11 and 16, are then rewarded with points in a game (e.g., the participant scores in a basketball game each time a dose is taken correctly), and they earn 50 cents that can be used to purchase music, apps, movies or TV shows.

"We are providing participants with immediate rewards when they take the medication appropriately," Mosnaim says. "We are learning if they're more likely to take their medications by using positive reinforcement and incentives."

Importance of Adherence

Some asthma patients need to use asthma controller medications daily to prevent asthma symptoms and attacks. Without the medication, inflammation in the airways can cause serious breathing problems, leading to missed school days or visits to the emergency room. That's why it’s important for parents to find ways to ensure that their children adhere to the medication schedule prescribed by doctors.

"Adolescents prefer instant gratification and often engage in risk-taking behavior," Mosnaim says. "As a result, they are more inclined to not take their daily medications and take the risk that they may end up in the emergency room. Adherence to daily asthma controller medications is key to asthma management and preventing asthma symptoms."

The sensor also gives researchers the location, time and date of participants' medication use. That can help them determine if air pollution, pollen levels or activity level are having an effect on breathing.

"We want to know where they are when they use their medicines so we can see if they took it because asthma symptoms were induced by exercise, such as being on a basketball court, or if poor air quality or high pollen counts could be a factor," Mosnaim says.

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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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August 2013


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Breaking Through: Can Smartphones Help Kids Manage Their Asthma?

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