New tool will help doctors identify child abuse cases

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HERSHEY, Pa. (WHTM) – Doctors at Penn State Children’s Hospital see about eight to 12 cases of possible abusive head trauma a year.

Dr. Kent Hymel is a child abuse pediatrician who works to diagnose some of those cases.

“My long-term research objective has been to improve the accuracy of screening and diagnosis of child abuse,” Hymel said.

Hymel says abusive head trauma is the leading cause of traumatic death and disability in infants and young children in the United States. But studies have shown that disparities and bias can affect a doctor’s decision to evaluate, diagnose and report suspected abuse.

“This may rein us back in the right direction so we don’t over-diagnose or under diagnose,” Hymel said

He’s talking about a new evidence-based predictive tool that physicians can use to diagnose child abuse.

“I created a research network and we captured a lot of data regarding 500 acutely head-injured infants and young children at 18 sites across North America,” Hymel said.

From that study several years ago, Hymel and his team developed seven variables to look at, including respiratory compromise, bruising on the child’s ears, neck or torso, skull fractures, bleeding in the head and eyes, and brain swelling.

“Ultimately, doctors will be able to ask themselves does the child have any of these seven findings. Based on the answers to those seven findings, it will calculate an estimate of the probability the child was abused,” Hymel said.

Hymel says when doctors don’t diagnose abusive head trauma, it can be detrimental — even fatal.

“The victims of abusive head trauma frequently suffer severe and permanent motor deficits, intellectual and developmental deficits. Seizures are common,” he said.

But he’s excited for its potential: making doctor’s decisions more accurate.

“It’ll take a while, but I’m really pretty excited about the potential to do some real good,” he said.

Researchers are working to validate the findings of the diagnostic tool before it can be adopted for use by physicians. They already have a screening tool being implemented in a trial.

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