Gabrielle Giffords Tweets “Happy Birthday” to astronaut husband

Representative Gabrielle Giffords sent a “Happy Birthday” tweet to her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, as he prepares for his upcoming Space Shuttle mission. OK, the “Tweet” was actually sent by one of her staff members, but that doesn’t mean that Representative Giffords  is not “tech-enabled.” On January 20th, Reuters reported that only 12 days after she was shot in the head, Giffords can stand with assistance, has tried to speak and is using an iPad.

“She is beginning to stand with assistance, she is scrolling through an iPad — these are all fantastic advances for her. They do show higher cognitive function,” Dr. Michael Lemole, chief of neurology at University Medical Center in Tuscon told reporters.

An avid iPad user before her injury, it is not surprising that Giffords might use her iPad during her recovery. However, in a larger sense,  its use highlights the potential for lightweight, touch screen devices to help patients with cognitive and motor deficits. For example, these devices can be used by  those who have speech impediments as a communication tool.

According to the Wall Street Journal, software  called Proloquo2Go ” is one of a growing number of apps aimed at people with speech difficulties developed for Apple’s gadgets. Some of the apps offer images that users can press to make the sound of a word; others lead students through stories to teach them basic speech patterns.”

They have also been used in children with autism. (Click here to  go to a review of “10 Revolutionary iPad Apps to Help Autistic Children.”)

What makes the iPad an especially good tool for certain patients? Some advantages include:

  • Touch screen sensitivity, even for a user with very limited movement (stroke patient, hands with arthritis, cerebral palsy, physical limitations due to a brain injury)
  • Multisensory appeal: visual, audio, tactile (the iPad vibrates with some applications also)
  • Portable and lightweight; can be used at the patient’s bedside or positioned on their lap or table
  • Artistic creations and settings can be saved or emailed
  • Apps often come with a free (lite) version that can be sampled before deciding to purchase the full version. Many apps are free and can be deleted if no longer required.
  • The iPad is easy to use – just touch, tap and see what happens.
  • The iPad has the ability to document observations. A range of documenting, note taking and even live recording apps are available (a valuable tool for Speech Pathologists, allied health staff and therapists for example)

What is the biggest drawback? It seems to be the reluctance of insurance companies to pay for the technology, despite the fact that it costs only a fraction of what “professional devices” cost. Why? Because they can be used for “nonmedical” purposes as well as medical ones. See two good articles on this topic:

Using the iPad to Connect:Parents, Therapists Use Apple Tablet to Communicate With Special Needs Kids

Insurers Fight Speech-Impairment Remedy

Seems to me that with medical and insurance costs skyrocketing, we should use whatever is the most appropriate AND cost-effective device. What do you think?

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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