COLUMBIA – As more children are diagnosed with autism, the demand for physicians specializing in autism has increased. To meet the growing demand for autism care, a University of Missouri researcher is leading an effort to deliver specialized training to primary care providers, including physicians and nurse practitioners, so they are better equipped to treat children with autism.
“Our aim is to improve quality of care and access to care among children with autism by mobilizing a community of primary care providers who are trained to meet their needs,” said Kristin Sohl, medical director for the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. “Our goal is to help providers increase their confidence in treating common issues seen in children with autism. When specialists and general practitioners share the care responsibilities, we increase access to services for all children with developmental and behavioral concerns.”
Sohl is leading the project, ECHO Autism, with the help of an interdisciplinary team from the Thompson Center, including a clinical psychologist, a child psychiatrist, a parent educator, a social worker and a clinical dietician. The experts will conduct two-hour, biweekly training sessions with physicians using virtual technology. The autism experts will train participants on important aspects of “whole-person” care for children with autism. Some topics include evaluation and treatment of autism-related health issues such as constipation, sleep problems and possible side effects of behavioral medications. Additionally, the training sessions will allow physicians to discuss their patient cases and receive input from other participants and the team of experts.
The concept of delivering specialized training to primary care physicians is not new. The ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) concept first began at the University of New Mexico as a way for medical experts to share their expertise with community providers using virtual technology, such as web conferencing. Now, several ECHO specialty programs exist, but the Missouri-led ECHO is the first focused on autism.
“Primary care doctors and nurses are the heart and foundation of pediatric medical care,” Sohl said. “Through ECHO Autism, we want to empower these providers to care for children with autism and other complex neurodevelopmental disorders. When these general practitioners feel confident in screening for autism and caring for children affected by the disorders, more children with autism will have access to high-quality autism care.”
ECHO Autism will run March through August 2015 and is a joint project of the Thompson Center and the Missouri Telehealth Network. Although the first session of ECHO Autism only is open to physicians in Missouri, Sohl plans to expand ECHO Autism nationally and internationally in the future. Funding for the project is provided by the state Medicaid program Missouri Care and Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network (ATN), which receives federal funding from the Autism Intervention Network on Physical Health. Sohl discussed ECHO Autism in a blog post for the ATN earlier this year.
The MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders is a national leader in confronting the challenges of autism and other developmental conditions through its collaborative research, training and service programs. The Thompson Center is one of 14 health facilities in the ATN, a ground-breaking network of hospitals, physicians, researchers and families across the United States and Canada.