New app helps workers track child development, identify autism early

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As employers struggle with retention rates across the board, healthcare technology company Cognoa is trying to keep a specific population employed: parents of children with developmental disorders.

The Palo Alto-based company recently launched Cognoa for Employers, a mobile app that screens children as young as 18 months for developmental disorders, to assist with early detection and cut down on future healthcare costs and missed workdays. The app would be included in a benefits package for parents to assess how their young children are reaching developmental benchmarks and screens for autism, speech delays and ADHD.

With one in six children in the United States diagnosed with a developmental disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the impact affects parents who work full-time.

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“There is a greater pressure on one of the parents to leave the workforce and stay home with the child,” says Cognoa CEO Brent Vaughan. “The key benefit is it allows valuable employees to be happy and focused at work.”

The company built the parent-facing app to encourage early detection and intervention; the average age of an autism diagnosis is age 4, according to nonprofit Autism Speaks. An earlier diagnosis, says Vaughan, could be “the difference between attending special or normal schools” and could create a “lifelong change for a family.”

“We hear from parents constantly who are unable to keep a job,” says Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association. “Many get frequent calls to pick up their kids from school, or have lots of medical appointments and need to take time off. It’s difficult for a lot of us to be dependable employees because caring for a child with autism can be volatile: Some days are fine, some are disastrous.”

See also: Four things employers need to know about working parents of children with autism

Cognoa’s machine learning-based platform, which has been running for two years and has data from more than 140,000 children screened by the app, attempts to minimize the number of doctor’s visits that could leave an employee to take time off, says Vaughan.

Parents are asked to fill out a questionnaire that details their child’s play habits, eye contact, stomach and sleep problems, sensitivity to noise, and body and verbal language. They are also able to record videos of their children for a home-based, parent-selected evaluation, which is then compared to other videos and information in the system. The data is kept password protected and has rigorous data encryption that meet or exceed HIPAA compliance, Vaughan says.

“In the detailed assessments, parents receive descriptions of specific behavioral areas where their child is meeting developmental milestones, as well as areas that correspond with any elevated risk for delay,” he says. “The assessment reports also include the links to the videos the parent provided of the child’s actual behavior that corresponds with the assessment. We have found that both parents and clinicians find it valuable to see the videos of the child’s natural behavior at home.”

Vaughan says the app’s main competitor is standard care. However, not all pediatricians screen for developmental disorders, which is where the app bridges the gap in care for parents who might not be able to pay the co-pay or bring their child to the doctor’s office.

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On average, children with autism annually cost $17,000 more than a neurotypical child, according to Autism Speaks. Those costs are incurred from co-pays, school-based special education and other medical costs.

“So many of our kids need 24/7 care, and it’s a huge challenge to find capable, trustworthy caregivers — not to mention paying them,” adds Fournier, whose daughter is autistic. “Parents across the country are in desperate need of help and support.”

The app also offers parents a “group community” where they can access clinician-suggested daily activities based on their child’s assessment, says Vaughan. They also have access to commonly asked questions from thousands of parents and the ability to pose their own.

Currently, Applied Behavior Analysis coverage is not mandated in every state but insurance carriers are moving toward its inclusion; UnitedHealthcare announced in June that it will extend ABA benefit coverage to small and large group plans beginning on Jan. 1, 2017.

Employers can purchase one year access to the Cognoa platform and mobile app for their employees as an add-on benefit to their package. The pricing is dependent upon number of users and is available as either per employee per month or based upon utilization, as per user per year, Vaughan says.

Vaughan credits employers who offer strong parental benefits with creating an environment of increased awareness about developmental disorders.

“There are more discussions around things that have been quite private, like autism and developmental delays,” he says. “We’re starting to see an increased awareness and an increased conversation.”

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