CHOC leads first ED study on adverse childhood experiences and prevalence of food and housing insecurity

In the only known hospital research project of its kind in the United States, CHOC’s Emergency Department is leading a study on how food and housing insecurity impacts children’s health and environment.

The project, being conducted in collaboration with departments at UC Irvine and Chapman University, involves surveying 7,000 CHOC ED patients by September 2021, with results expected by the end of the year, says Dr. Theodore Heyming, medical director of emergency medicine at CHOC and chief architect of the effort.

Dr. Theodore Heyming, medical director of emergency medicine at CHOC

The study, which to date already has enrolled some 2,500 CHOC patients, will assess ACEs, also known as adverse childhood experiences. Most ACEs studies conducted to date by other hospitals have been limited to the primary care setting. Since July 2020, CHOC’s ED has been screening for ACEs with particular attention to the following three areas: abuse, neglect, and/or household challenges. 

“To my knowledge, we’re the only pediatric hospital that has this kind of health research project implemented in an emergency department,” Dr. Heyming says. And that makes sense, he adds.

“People don’t usually think of an emergency room as a primary care setting,” Dr. Heyming says. “However, the opposite actually is true. A lot of patients use the ER as their primary care. EDs also have the ability to potentially intervene on patients even to a greater extent than in the primary care setting, given the availability of experienced social workers.”

The potential benefits of the study, which involves questioning patients in more depth than standard ACEs screenings, are numerous, as detailed in an abstract that Dr. Heyming and his collaborators have submitted to the American Public Health Association (APHA), a Washington, D.C.-based organization for public health professionals.

For example, ED-based research has yet to investigate the extent to which neighborhood-level factors such as fast-food accessibility and a lack of healthy food options contribute to poor pediatric health outcomes.

The CHOC-led study aims to identify such neighborhood-level factors and generate valuable information that could be leveraged for public policy and advocacy efforts to improve pediatric health. That, in turn, could lead to a reduction of ED overutilization and associated healthcare costs.

Disadvantaged kids hit hardest

Food and housing insecurity disproportionately impact children in disadvantaged communities, studies show.

And children living in so-called “food swamps” — areas with an abundance of fast-food restaurants, pharmacies and discount stores that sell cheap but unhealthy food — as well as “food deserts,” areas that lack affordable food that is fresh and nutritious, are more at risk of obesity, diabetes and other adverse health conditions, as well as mental and behavioral issues and trauma, the paper explains.

The study of 7,000 CHOC ED patients comes on the heels of a smaller CHOC ED study on the prevalence of ACEs in patients that was conducted between July 2020 and February 2021. Twenty-four CHOC ED doctors were certified in state-run ACEs modules and 1,861 patients participated – the biggest cross-sectional survey that CHOC has done to date, according to Dr. Heyming.

About 20 percent of respondents in that smaller-scale survey reported at least one ACE or more — a percentage consistent with national numbers, Dr. Heyming says. In addition, the survey found that the prevalence of food insecurity among CHOC patients is about 15 percent. 

Now, in partnering with Chapman University and UCI, CHOC is digging deeper into the prevalence of food and housing insecurity with its study of 7,000 patients — and the potential neighborhood-level factors that contribute to such insecurity.

Dr. Jason Douglas, an assistant professor of public health at Chapman University, specializes in investigating social and environmental determinants of public health disparities that disproportionately impact the Black and Latinx communities. 

Dr. Douglas, who has extensive experience connecting social and environmental factors to public health disparities in Los Angeles County as well as Northern California, New York and Jamaica, will use data from the 7,000 survey respondents to analyze neighborhood-level factors that contribute to poor pediatric health.

“The goal is to identify factors that are affecting community health and well-being and inform public policies to improve health in underserved communities,” Dr. Douglas says. “To be able to identify adverse childhood experiences and food and housing security within the clinical context and use that data to garner a better understanding of how social and environmental factors may be exacerbating health disparities will allow us to develop a more holistic understanding of the deleterious impacts of these challenges on children’s lives.”

At UCI, Dr. Victor Cisneros, an emergency medicine clinical instructor and current research fellow in population health and social emergency medicine, will lead a team of investigators who will participate in follow-up phone calls with the CHOC ED survey respondents. The follow-up interviews will be conducted three and six weeks after respondents complete the survey.

“These follow-up interviews are important to assess if interventions given in the ED are effective, and if not, what barriers our patients are facing,” Dr. Cisneros says.

All CHOC ED patients up to 18 years of age and their parents or guardians qualify as potential participants in the survey, which is available in English and Spanish. The survey includes 16 questions that take about 5 to 10 minutes to complete on iPads provided by CHOC.

Patients identified as experiencing food and/or housing insecurity are directed to passive food and housing resource materials in the form of informational pamphlets and flyers.

“We’re going to potentially be able to leverage this data to help cities and the county to make informed policy changes,” Dr. Heyming says. 

“Obtaining this information will not only be great for Orange County,” he adds. “I think we’ll be able to point to the fact that pediatric EDs are a great place to conduct these screenings because there’s a high incidence of either adverse childhood experiences or food or housing insecurity.”

Dr. Heyming says pediatric EDs in the future would be able to provide patients more active resources such as gift and food cards.

Dr. Douglas says the study ideally will serve as a model for pediatric and other emergency departments across the country.

The bottom line, Dr. Cisneros says, is getting people resources they need – for example, food that restaurants now dispose of that can be “recycled.”

The ED, he says, is a perfect microcosm of the community.

“One of the beauties of this study,” Dr. Cisneros says, “is we’ll be able to identify people with housing and food insecurity and be able to refer these people to the appropriate tailored resources. In addition, we will be able to further quantify what obstacles our patients face both at the individual and community level.”

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CHOC studies child maltreatment during COVID-19, adopts new tools to better recognize signs of abuse

With COVID-19 restrictions keeping more families at home, a critical question has emerged:

Are children suffering more physical and emotional maltreatment because they’re spending more time with parents who are dealing with extra stress in their lives?

A recently completed study by clinicians in the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Hospital sheds some light on whether child abuse cases are rising because of stay-at-home orders. The study comes as CHOC ED personnel are using two new screening tools to help clinicians better recognize signs of abuse as well as victims of human sex trafficking.

COVID’s effect on child maltreatment

CHOC ED personnel studied whether the incidence of child maltreatment – which includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse, plus neglect – among patients being admitted to the emergency department has risen since the pandemic began in mid-March 2020.

They reviewed records of ED visits of patients up to 18 years old during a 3 ½-month period from March to July 2020 and reviewed the Child Protective Services database, then compared that period to the same time frame in 2019, 2018 and 2017.

Result: More reports of child mistreatment – 215 – were filed during the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to 204 during the same period in 2019, 199 in 2018 and 158 in 2017.

This is especially significant because CHOC’s ED has experienced a significantly lower ED patient census during the pandemic compared to pre-COVID days, says Dr. Mary Jane Piroutek, a CHOC ED attending physician.

Dr. Mary Jane Piroutek, CHOC ED attending physician

While sexual and physical abuse cases were down in the 3 ½-month period in 2020, cases of general neglect and medical neglect, as well as emotional abuse, were higher during COVID compared to the previous years.

Erika Jewell, manager of Case Management and Social Services at CHOC, put some of these numbers in context. In 2017, she reports, the rate of children in Orange County suffering abuse or neglect was 43.8 per 1,000, compared to 33.5 in 2012.

Of the 4,451 substantiated case of child abuse and neglect in Orange County in 2017, the vast majority – 3,204 – were cases of general neglect. Sexual abuse cases, in comparison, totaled 191.

“Our findings suggest the incidence of child neglect increased during the implementation of the stay-at-home guidelines,” says Dr. Piroutek, who spoke with Jewell and others on a panel on Research Day on Nov. 18, 2020.

Knowledge of such a trend, Dr. Piroutek explains, could help providers identify children at risk for maltreatment and, ultimately, provide an impetus to shape public policy and to improve the effectiveness with which resources are allocated to address the COVID-19 public health crisis.

Two new screening tools

Beginning in October 2019, the CHOC ED rolled out the first of two new screening tools aimed at making it easier for nurses and doctors to better identify patients at risk of abuse.

The first new screening tool being used in CHOC’s ED is TRAIN, for Timely Recognition of Abusive Injuries Collaborative. It is used to screen patients 6 months and younger.

The second screening tool, launched in July 2020, is CA-CDS, for Child Abuse – Clinical Decision Support. It is used to screen patients 11 years or younger. Components include a triage screen where nurses or doctors answer five questions, a pop-up computer alert that flags which patients may be at risk for physical abuse, a link to order sets and CHOC’s computerized suspected child abuse form.

With these two new tools, the CHOC ED estimates it can detect 50 percent more sentinel injuries than before. A sentinel injury is a seemingly trivial one that can be viewed as a “sentinel event” for much worse injuries in the future. Research shows that one-quarter of abused children had previous sentinel injuries.

The ED is collecting data through December 2021 to evaluate how well the new screening tools are helping healthcare workers detect cases of maltreatment, Dr. Piroutek says.

“It’s a more data-based and methodical approach; you have a computer that’s looking at data and flagging concerning patterns for you: ‘Hey, there’s something that might be abuse here,’” Dr. Piroutek explains.

The new screening tools will help CHOC better comply with treatment guidelines set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Dr. Piroutek notes.

“CHOC is committed to research for the betterment of our patients and children,” Dr. Piroutek says. “With the implementation of these new screening tools I am confident we can provide the best care for our patients.”

Screening for human sex trafficking has also become an important part of CHOC nursing care.

Sheryl Riccardi, Emergency Department manager at CHOC, says a steering group of about 20 associates has been established to help healthcare workers better identify, intervene and advocate for these victims, many of whom are minors and most of whom come from the Unites States.

Santa Ana is the largest hub of human sex trafficking in the state, she notes. The ED has begun screening 12- to 18-year-olds – regardless of their chief complaint for possible further evaluation – if a child reports a complaint indicating a high risk of abuse, Riccardi says.

CHOC, she adds, recently became a partner with the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, a law enforcement-led coalition that is committed to combating all forms of human trafficking through the rescue and long-term support of victims, prosecution of offenders, training of fellow law enforcement professionals, community awareness and effective public/private partnerships.

According to Waymakers and the Salvation Army, in 2019 there were 415 identified victims of human trafficking in Orange County, with sex trafficking victims totaling 359. The other victims were trafficked for labor.

CHOC is determined to do what it can to find and help these victims.

“We’ve very passionate about this,” Riccardi says.

Learn more about how to identify child abuse.

CHOC study shows reduced risk of emergency department COVID-19 infection

A new CHOC study that could help calm public fears about contracting COVID-19 shows that asymptomatic healthcare professionals who work in a community with a low prevalence of the disease and who undergo daily health screenings are unlikely to be carriers of the coronavirus that causes the disease.

Findings of the study, one of the first of its kind and conducted during California’s projected peak of coronavirus-related use of hospital resources, shine an encouraging light on a topic where there are currently limited data available.

CHOC’s study tested patient-facing staff at its Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department during a two-week period in April 2020, using a Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19 viral RNA. Subjects were asymptomatic and had no fever, as all employees undergo daily pre-shift health and temperature screenings prior to entering the hospital. Testing found just one of 145 subjects was positive for COVID-19, and contact tracing showed that this person was not responsible for any further transmission of infection.

With these findings indicating that strict screening measures in a hospital serving a community with a lower prevalence of COVID-19 are effective in preventing the spread of the disease, the study could also offer some comfort to people who may have been reluctant to seek medical care for themselves or their children because they fear contracting COVID-19 in a healthcare setting. 

“We are encouraged by the results of the study and trust that our community will be reassured to know that the chances of acquiring COVID-19 during a visit to a pediatric emergency department can be lower than during routine activities,” said study co-investigator Dr. Terence Sanger, CHOC’s vice president of research and chief scientific officer. “We continue to urge them to seek prompt expert care for themselves and their children when the need arises.”

Hospitals nationwide have reported a significant drop in emergency department visits for major acute conditions. Patients may seek medical attention too late for adequate treatment, which could have serious, even fatal, consequences.

Preliminary data from California suggest that while healthcare workers represent 10% of all known COVID-19 cases in the state, only 18% of those cases were known to be acquired in a healthcare setting. This indicates the workers likely contacted the disease outside of the healthcare setting.

The low rate of infection in CHOC’s emergency department could be attributed to many factors, including the lower percentage of infection in the surrounding community, as well as people in the community following safety guidelines including social distancing and wearing masks.

Additionally, healthcare workers in a pediatric setting might be expected to have a lower risk of infection than those in an adult healthcare setting due to a lower rate of high-risk aerosolization procedures such as intubation in younger patients.

“We take every precaution we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in CHOC care settings,” said Dr. Theodore Heyming, medical director of CHOC’s emergency department and study co-investigator. “While the effects of the coronavirus continue to be devastating, this report offers a ray of hope that brave healthcare workers can continue to administer care to their patients without the added burden of putting themselves or the people they care for at further unnecessary risk.”

Also contributing to the study were Aprille Tongol, a CHOC research administrator; Jennifer MacLean, a CHOC nurse practitioner; and multiple staff from the CHOC Research Institute.

Learn more about the CHOC Research Institute.

CHOC study aims to determine COVID-19 antibodies present in Emergency department staff

A CHOC Hospital study could determine how many patient-facing clinicians and staff in its emergency department have COVID-19 fighting antibodies, easing concerns of asymptomatic carriers exposing others to the virus in an acute care setting.

Using rapid serological testing, the monthlong study will determine the prevalence of viral exposure and incidence of new exposure among staff at the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Hospital.

Serological blood testing looks for antibodies developed by the body to fight infection. Antibodies indicate the likelihood of past or recent infection or exposure. While researchers are still learning about COVID-19, it is also possible those who have been exposed to the virus and recovered have produced antibodies to protect them from the infection.

“While COVID-19 antibody screening is in its infancy, CHOC is pleased to help share data and contribute to this important conversation as the world’s scientific community unites in a race toward universal testing, antiviral treatment, and the development of a vaccine in order to permit a scientifically-based return to  normalcy,” said study co-principal investigator Dr. Terence Sanger, CHOC’s vice president of research and chief scientific officer.

Dr. Terence Sanger, study co-principal investigator and CHOC’s vice president of research and chief scientific officer.

Under the study, participants will undergo rapid antibody serology testing for immunoglobin G (IgG) and immunoglobin M (IgM) against COVID-19 novel coronavirus through a simple finger prick once per shift, with results available in three minutes. Additionally, all subjects will undergo viral RNA testing on their first day of the study, as well as on any day that they show IgM positive for antibodies.

In early results, all 107 people tested so far had negative results on reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests, a COVID-19 test, and all were negative for IgGs against COVID-19. Two tested positive for IgM but their viral RNA testing was negative.

As the study progresses, up to 250 subjects are expected to enroll total, with about 100 participants being tested each day.

Secondary outcomes include determining a correlation between antibody serology and DNA testing for acute infection, test-retest reliability of serology testing, evidence for direct transmission of infection between healthcare workers, and potential for reinfection in previously infected convalescent patients. 

Antibody screening could become an additional element of  CHOC’s toolkit in protecting patients, families, physicians and staff against COVID-19. Already, the hospital conducts health screenings, requires appropriate masks and personal protective equipment and practices social distancing, in addition to stringent cleaning practices.

All combined, an additional critically important benefit of the study would be the establishment of a “safe zone” in the emergency department by reducing concerns that an asymptomatic staff member or clinician could transmit the disease to a patient seeking care, or their family, despite CHOC’s strict safety and infection prevention precautions.

Hospitals and health systems nationwide are reporting declining emergency department visits, attributed to patients delaying care out of fear of contracting COVID-19 in the facility. For example, more than half of respondents in a recent NRC Health survey have delayed healthcare for themselves or someone in their home because of the virus, and 60 percent of respondents thought there was an elevated risk when visiting their providers.

Suggesting the national trend has impacted CHOC, its current emergency department volume is about 25 percent less than typical this time of year, yet patient acuity is much higher than typical.

“Seeking prompt and expert care for children in emergent situations is critically important – especially during a pandemic,” said Dr. Theodore Heyming, medical director of CHOC’s emergency department and principal investigator of the study. “We understand how frightening COVID-19 is for parents and children alike. We are excited by the possibility that this study could further prove CHOC as a haven for worried parents, and a source of safe and expert pediatric care during this outbreak – and always.”

Dr. Theodore Heyming, medical director of CHOC’s emergency department and principal investigator of the study.

The study, expected to run through mid-May, is aided by WytCote, an Irvine-based technologies solutions company that has enabled access to testing kits from Jiangsu SuperBio Medical Inc.

“This pandemic is impacting all our communities and WytCote recognized that gaining access to such testing could play a critical role towards limiting the spread of the virus. We are pleased to be partnering with CHOC to support the testing and use of this new coronavirus antibody test,” said Frank Gomez, WytCote’s CEO/Founder.

Learn more about the CHOC Research Institute

In the Spotlight: Seth Brindis, M.D.

In addition to providing high-quality medical care, physicians and staff at the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Hospital strive to make the experience less stressful for children and families.  One physician, in particular, has a few tricks to ease his patients’ fear and anxiety.  Dr. Seth Brindis, a board-certified pediatric emergency medicine specialist and medical director of informatics, performs magic for his patients.

“For me, magic makes my job easier, instantly transforming what can be a scary experience for children to something fun. I incorporate magic into my physical exam as it makes the exam easier and more reliable when patients are comfortable with me and distracted. I tend to use coin tricks because they appeal to a wider range of ages, with the added benefit that the coins can be disinfected between patient contacts.”

Luckily, it doesn’t have to be an emergency in order to see Dr. Brindis’ magic. With help from child life, he occasionally puts on impromptu magic shows in the CHOC theater for inpatients, their siblings and parents.

Dabbling in magic since childhood, Dr. Brindis’ interest in magic was revitalized while in residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where he realized that simple tricks with cards and coins could help make connections with patients and staff. Since then, he has continued to study magic, even taking courses tailored for magic in medicine. Seeing thousands of patients each year, Dr. Brindis gets ample time to try out new tricks and help patients and their families leave with positive experiences and smiles on their faces.

Exclusively dedicated to the treatment of pediatric patients, CHOC’s ED features 31 exam rooms, including two trauma bays, and three triage suites. The ED is staffed with doctors who are board-certified in emergency medicine and specially trained nurses who provide the very best patient- and family-centered care. Child life specialists work with patients to help them feel safe and secure, and make the process a lot less stressful for the entire family.

“The ED is often the gateway for many families who are coming to our organization for the first time. We’re working together to deliver the best care to those who need it most. My job is to understand what is distressing to a parent in the middle of the night and either educate and reassure the family or intervene when called for.”

As the only trauma center in Orange County dedicated exclusively for kids, CHOC is ready to treat injuries 24 hours a day. The trauma team is trained to care for children and their unique physiological, anatomical and emotional needs, and CHOC’s protocols and equipment are specially designed for pediatrics.

The ED saw over 49,000 patients in the first year it opened. This year, it’s on pace to see more than 85,000 patients – an incredible rate of growth, which Dr. Brindis credits to the coordination and cooperation between the ED physicians, EMSOC leadership, and nursing, as well as CHOC administration.

“I love being a part of this team. I feel like we provide exemplary care to every person who enters our doors. Often, I feel like the conductor of an orchestra of care. There is no way I could do my job without the incredible people I work with. It really is impressive to watch our team working in concert to stabilize a really sick child.”

Dr. Brindis received his medical degree from Vanderbilt University. He completed his pediatric residency and pediatric emergency medicine (PEM) fellowship training at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. In addition to caring for patients in the ED, he is actively involved with the training and teaching of pediatric and emergency medicine residents as well as the PEM fellows.

In his spare time, Dr. Brindis enjoys spending time with his wife, son and daughter. He also enjoys cooking, painting and, of course, working on his magic.