VUMC looks to quickly diagnose children with autism via telemedicine

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Vanderbilt University Medical Center is launching a study to assess tools designed to make a remote diagnosis of autism in young children rapidly using telemedicine technology.

The two-year study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, will enroll 150 patients in an effort to significantly increase access and reduce wait times for autism services.

“Pediatricians will often screen children and refer them to medical centers that have challenging wait periods—it’s not uncommon across the country to wait six to 12 months or longer for an initial evaluation of your child,” says the study’s lead investigator, Zachary Warren, executive director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders.

“It’s stressful and, frankly, unacceptable for parents to hear, ‘We think your child may have a neurodevelopmental disability with lifespan consequences that would benefit dramatically from early intervention, but we can’t give you a definitive answer for months or a year,’ ” Warren added.

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Two assessment tools designed to be low-cost, brief and easy to understand will be tested as part of initial consultations lasting less than an hour rather than the traditional, in-person evaluations at specialty clinics, which could take four or more hours.

“These hour-long consultations will not be able to make a definitive diagnosis for all children, but they can help with the triage process—some profiles of autism in young children are much easier to identify,” noted Warren.

The two-phase study will begin with a several-month feedback period with families to adapt the tools before putting them to use, while the second phase will involve mimicking the telemedicine visits, with patients and their families coming to the clinic and having a tele-consultation with a provider who is on a separate floor of the building.

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