How Healthcare Technology Is Taking on Child Abuse

By Luke Smith, Writer and Researcher
Twitter: @lukesmithwrites

In the wake of COVID-19, advancements in healthcare tech allowed us to shift to many healthcare processes to a virtual environment. Telehealth took off and with it came greater flexibility in how and where patients could receive treatment.

Now, some of that same technology is being applied to the fight against child abuse. With nearly 700,000 children experiencing abuse per year in the U.S. alone, the need for recognizing and stopping this abuse is great. New technologies are helping in this fight.

From in-home telehealth systems to cloud databases of vulnerable patient information, healthcare technology can play a significant role in catching and preventing abuse. Here’s what you should know.

The Power of Big Data and Machine Learning in Fighting Abuse
Big data, or vast stores of data accumulated through virtual interactions and record keeping, is a fundamental aspect to many modern technologies. Big data powers all kinds of systems, from the smart home device in your living room to diagnostic AIs used by physicians and radiologists.

In healthcare, mining for and applying big data makes for better care solutions. This data is generated for descriptive, predictive, or prescriptive purposes, then analyzed to produce more efficient patient results. As a result, healthcare professionals have access to insights through smart tools and connective sampling that could never be possible on a large scale without modern data storage and protection procedures.

Using this data can ascribe predictive mapping to child abuse cases, helping care providers spot and act to stop such abuse. For example, one study using both structured and unstructured medical data in the form of text notes found that machine learning models could classify possible abuse with a high success rate.

This is important because it indicates the power of technology in helping recognize risk groups all through the application of big data. In this instance, the AI is fed the structured and unstructured medical notes, it compares those notes to pattern frequency in models of abuse, then ascribes a classification. By the nature of machine learning, the process is improved the more data it is fed.

As time goes on and these classification systems improve, care providers and social service workers will be better able to predict and know when a child is at risk. They will be able to more clearly understand where abuse is occurring rather without mistaking minor disciplinary actions or symptoms of another event.

Big data, then, may become a powerful tool in the prevention of child abuse. However, it will take the right tech and applications.

Tech Making a Difference
The technological shift prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to accessible care solutions like telehealth, but the lockdowns and widespread fear also meant an uptick in domestic abuse cases. In this environment, we need every tool we can use in the fight against child abuse.

Fortunately, a suite of technologies on the market now offer hope. Powered by big data and AI processes, these tools make it increasingly possible to identify child abuse where it occurs and prevent it in the future.

Here are just a few of these important technologies:

  • Telehealth services
    Visiting with a care provider used to require traveling to an office. Now, telehealth services make it possible to address patient needs from home in many cases. Such care can make it possible for more children to speak with a care provider.Additionally, this enhanced accessibility can give providers the tools to prevent child abuse at the source. With Behavioral Parent Training (BPT) programs like SafeCare are already showing progress in decreasing maltreatment in the home; telehealth can extend these programs to all kinds of previously unreachable demographics.BPT programs delivered through telehealth give care providers the opportunity to witness interactions between parent and child in a home environment. The added benefit is that these programs are more accessible and can be used to track more data than in-person alternatives.
  • Cloud data system
    Electronic health records (EHRs) are becoming the norm for care facilities. However, these records have been hard hit by the increase in cybercrime. At an estimated $423 per each breach in patient records, healthcare providers are hemorrhaging costs attempting to keep data safe.Preventing child abuse depends on safe healthcare data. Luckily, new technologies are helping to keep EHRs and the children they regard safer.Blockchain is one such technology. This system of data storage encrypts data in linked hashes, making it extremely difficult for the data to be manipulated or stolen. This system also has the benefit of decentralized data ownership, meaning that care facilities who make use of such a system could easily maintain a child’s care history from anywhere. This could help catch problematic patterns in the medical records of abused children.
  • AI tools
    AI is instrumental in keeping children safe in the digital age. The Internet Watch Foundation reported that amidst COVID-19 lockdowns, child online abuse increased by 50%. AI is actively being employed to combat this abuse.Safer is one example of such an AI. This tool allows tech platforms to spot, remove, and report instances of child sexual abuse material with 99% accuracy. But its full potential is still being discovered.With smart tools like Safer used across the web, all kinds of child exploitation material can be combated and removed. Ideally, this will also lead to the arrest of the perpetrators involved.

With the proper application, these tools can all be utilized safely in the fight against child abuse. As tech extends the reach of accessible services while simultaneously improving outcomes, care providers are in a better position than ever to recognize where child abuse is occurring and act to prevent it.

Machine learning fueled by big data is the dream of healthcare, eliminating much of human error while generating incredible analytical opportunities. For the millions of children across the world suffering from abuse, this could mean a much-needed reprieve.

But to get to this safer future, we will first need to integrate better data protections and widespread accessibility.