Young pediatric surgeon receives prestigious NIH award

Aaron Lesher, M.D., MSCR, a promising young surgeon-scientist at the Medical University of South Carolina, has received a prestigious Mentored Patient - Oriented Research Career Development Award, also known as a K23, from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It will give the pediatric surgeon more time to pursue an innovative approach that will change the paradigm of how clinicians treat burn patients.

The K23 provides $680,928 in funding over a four-year period. The idea is to cover a lot of costs so young clinical researchers have the freedom to focus their research endeavors on patient-oriented research. The K23 includes protected time for individuals considered to be on the path to a productive, independent clinical research career.

Lesher’s study, A novel telemedicine optimized burn intervention (TOBI) for pediatric burn-injured patients and their caregivers, expands on a pilot study funded through a $200,000 Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina Foundation Grant to build a first-of-its kind burn care app.  

MUSC is the only pediatric burn center in the state, but geographically far away from many pediatric burn patients, which creates a barrier to access to care. After a child is treated for a burn, he or she typically has to see a doctor multiple times to make sure the wound is healing correctly.

According to Lesher, treating burns is well-suited to telemedicine because it largely relies on visual examination and can be done through video conferencing or image transfer. Over 94% of people have the ability to communicate through a smart phone and the use of the app was shown to be extremely effective in his pilot study treating partial thickness burns in children.

“Using the app in the pilot study allowed caregivers to access the expert burn team through smart phone technology,” said Lesher. “Clinicians can be there virtually while patients are at home changing the dressing, helping them along the way.”

The NIH funding will allow Lesher and his team to expand and optimize the BurnApp created in the pilot study and it’s model of care provision. They will utilize feedback from both the patients and physicians currently in the pilot study to make sure it has the all of the functionality that they want and need.

“Once this phase is completed, we will conduct a feasibility study, using a small randomized control clinical trial at MUSC, to determine whether or not we can proceed to a larger multicenter trial,” Lesher said. “Additionally, we can rollout the app in other hospital settings to better understand the barriers to implementation in different hospital environments, providing a new model of patient care that may be as good or better than face-to-face interaction.”

Prabhakar Baliga, M.D., chair of the Department of Surgery, said Lesher’s innovative approach to treating pediatric burns is a model that can be expanded to other disciplines. “What this study really does is show how we can change the way we deliver healthcare,” he said. “It’s really changing the way physicians and patients interact with each other and it can be applied to many other clinical scenarios.”

Lesher said he’s honored to receive the award. “I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to be supported by Dr. Baliga and have the endorsement of the Department of Surgery at MUSC, where innovation and clinical research are highly valued,” said Lesher. “It’s exciting to see how we can change the paradigm for patient care.”

Lesher has received other awards and recognition. Most recently, he was named IDeA Fellow 2019. Dr. Lesher attended an NIH symposium in Park City, Utah on pediatric trauma and critical care disease with other promising investigators. The symposium was sponsored by the NIH Pediatric Critical Care and Trauma Scientist Development Program (PCCTSDP) and provided an opportunity to meet other young  investigators in pediatric critical care.