Northern California children with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, spinal cord injuries and other physical disabilities now have access to UC Davis Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physicians, thanks to a new telehealth program.

A young boy at Hoover Elementary School in Stockton, Calif. is evaluated via telehealth by Loren Davidson.
A young boy at Hoover Elementary School in Stockton, Calif. is evaluated via telehealth by Loren Davidson.

Funded by a $2 million, five-year grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), the new School-Based Tele-Physiatry Assistance for Rehabilitative and Therapeutic Services (STARS) program serves children who receive support through California Children’s Services’ Medical Therapy Program. The program provides physical therapy, occupational therapy, and durable medical equipment to children with neurological or musculoskeletal disorders at designated school-based Medical Therapy Units.

Bringing subspecialty services to rural, underserved communities

During STARS program patient telehealth visits, the UC Davis medical team makes recommendations for specialized equipment such as orthotics and wheelchairs, prescribes therapy services and makes necessary referrals for specialized medical treatment.

Loren Davidson, clinical professor for pediatric physical medicine and rehabilitation and grant co-investigator, said the STARS grant is a pilot program exploring the use of telehealth to bring subspecialty services to rural and underserved communities.

“The goal of the project is to improve the quality of care for children with disabilities in California, irrespective of how far they live from an urban center,” Davidson said. “Telehealth has the potential to serve as the new model for physician medical direction at California Children’s Services’ Medical Therapy Units throughout the state, linking them to the physicians and hospitals that can best meet their needs."

Stockton school becomes first STARS site

Hoover Elementary School in Stockton became the first Medical Therapy Unit to implement the new tele-physiatry program in January. Patients can now receive care from a pediatric physiatrist without leaving San Joaquin County.

This type of specialized care is essential, but not all counties have Medical Therapy Units. Families often travel long distances to other counties to receive care.

James Marcin, professor for the department of pediatrics, director of the UC Davis Center for Health and Technology and principal grant investigator, said telehealth will help both families and physicians save time and travel costs.

“The use of telehealth should help address the distance barrier, which is sometimes insurmountable for families and children living in rural communities,” said Marcin, noting that UC Davis Health is a telehealth pioneer, bringing expert care to underserved communities across all of Northern California. “Also, with telehealth, we will be able to provide more frequent visits, given the fact that the doctors will not have to travel long distances to the school-based units to provide care.”

The STARS program is a collaboration of the UC Davis Pediatric Telemedicine Program, the UC Davis Department of Pediatrics, the UC Davis Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Shriners Hospitals for Children - Northern California.