Smart Inhaler Project Aims to Reduce Asthma Attacks Among LA’s Low-Income Children

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A new pilot project in Los Angeles County aims to reduce the burden of childhood asthma in low-income communities and on the public health system by putting “smart” inhalers in the hands of kids.

Led by the recently formed non-profit group SmartAirLA, the project will distribute inhalers with Bluetooth sensors to about 150 low-income, asthmatic children. The inhalers will remind children when it’s time to take their medication and help parents and doctors track whether kids are following their medication regimen correctly. The inhalers will also collect information about when and where children experience asthma attacks, allowing researchers to identify asthmatic hotspots that can potentially be mitigated through government and community action, such as rerouting traffic or planting trees.

The program is modeled on a similar effort in Louisville, Ky.,which resulted in citywide policies to improve air quality in certain locations, and found that people who used the smart inhalers had 82 percent fewer asthma attacks.

“This is an opportunity to really transform and improve the wellbeing of the community,” said Ray Cheung, Executive Director of SmartAirLA, a public-private partnership that brings together researchers, business representatives, and the Los Angeles Department of Public Health (LADPH).

“In Los Angeles County, there’s 59,000 underserved children with asthma. Our dream is, how do we use this technology to help these children, who are mostly black and Latinos, who are low income, how do we give them this technology to empower them to better manage their asthma?” he said.

Impoverished children in Los Angeles County suffer higher rates of asthma than their more affluent peers. One in 10 kids living in poverty has asthma, compared to one out of every 11 children overall, according to LADPH. For African-American children the prevalence is vastly higher, with one in four children suffering from asthma

Many of these children struggle to keep their symptoms under control, said Paul Simon, chief science officer with the county’s public health department. He said that may be because they lack access to health care, or because they don’t have a regular provider who monitors their condition. Additionally, asthma among low-income children is likely under-diagnosed, he said.

The result is a high volume of low-income children end up in hospital emergency rooms and urgent care centers because of uncontrolled asthma symptoms. More than half of children with asthma also missed at least one day of school in the past year, according to LADPH.

“We know there are good treatments that can control asthma in almost all children, and so we want to do everything we can to ensure that kids are getting the medical care they need,” Simon said. “We’re very supportive of this project. It’s a very innovative project and we’re eager to see if it can be done successfully.”

The project is supported by a $250,000 grant from the Blue Shield of California Foundation.* Rachel Wick, senior program officer with the foundation, said officials there were excited about the project’s potential to improve asthma prevention both at the individual and societal level.

“What’s exciting is the project really broadens our sense of what a health intervention is and who can take action to improve health and promote health,” she said.

If the pilot project is successful, the goal is to expand it to the broader population of kids, possibly with support from Medi-Cal or another public health entity, Cheung said.

Meanwhile, Joe Lyou, president and CEO of the Coalition for Clean Air, which is not involved in the project, said the initiative sounded promising. Nevertheless, he said the project can’t be relied upon to solve the county’s asthma problems, and officials must continue to work on other ways to reduce contaminants in the air.

“We want to focus on reducing air pollution that causes asthma, and not just treating asthma caused by air pollution,” he said. “But this (project) is going to be a very important source of new information.”

*Blue Shield of California Foundation is also a funder of California Health Report.

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