These children's hospitals have made every kid's health a priority by forging new treatments for all things from cancer to ordinary ear infections. Be prepared to be amazed.

By Karen Cicero and Riyana Straetker
December 21, 2008

Breakthroughs are born at these 20 children’s hospitals that rose to the top in an exclusive Parents survey. The survey, developed with medical advisors, sought to identify hospitals with a proven track-record of medical advances as well as innovative ways to make little patients and their families more comfortable. The survey also took into account a hospital’s adoption of the latest technologies and its efforts to share its innovations with other pediatric centers so more kids can benefit. 

“Pediatrics is a hotbed of innovation,” says Patricia McGaffigan, vice president for safety programs at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Here are the top 20 children’s hospitals that scored the highest based on outstanding innovations and how they are contributing to the world of pediatric care.


Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP)

Chemotherapy doesn’t work for about 15 percent of kids with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. They relapse repeatedly or don’t respond at all. Doctors could do no more for these kids before Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), the University of Pennsylvania, and the drug company Novartis pioneered CAR T-cell therapy. Their scientists cracked the code on how to remove a patient’s own white blood cells, program them to attack the leukemia, and return them to the patient—a concept that scientists worldwide had been working on for 20-plus years.

“The therapy has put 80 to 90 percent of children in remission, and more than half of them are still in remission,” says Stephan Grupp, M.D., Ph.D., director of CHOP’s Cancer Immunotherapy Program, who treated the first child, Emily Whitehead, with CAR T-cells in 2012. Now an eighth-grader, she remains cancer-free and goes to the hospital twice a year for checkups. “If you met Emily for the first time, you’d never know what she went through,” says her dad, Tom, who started a foundation in her name to fund cancer research. “Emily’s doctors are our heroes.”

Seattle Children’s Hospital

As a member of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation’s Stand Up to Cancer Pediatric Cancer Dream Team, Seattle Children’s Hospital is focused on developing new treatments for many kinds of difficult-to-cure kid cancers. Currently, doctors are working on a vaccine to allow reprogrammed T cells to last longer, hoping to raise success rates. “We’re also studying how to make T cells attack solid tumors like neuroblastoma and brain tumors,” explains Mike Jensen, M.D., director of Seattle’s Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research.

Akron Children’s Hospital, Ohio

More than ever before, children’s hospitals are prioritizing mental health. Mental-health experts work alongside pediatricians in 26 of the 27 primary-care locations of Akron Children’s Hospital in northern Ohio. “I felt like I had nowhere to turn before I saw a notice about mental-health services in the waiting room of my 8-year-old’s pediatrician,” says Mary Beitko. “He was diagnosed with ADHD, and he’s seeing a counselor every other week in the familiar setting. Plus, it’s easy for his counselor and pediatrician to coordinate about his medications.”

Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, Baltimore

You wouldn’t expect to see kids in a pediatric intensive-care unit (PICU) zipping around the hall on a scooter, but that’s exactly what’s happening at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. Its researchers are leading a worldwide movement to reduce sedation for the sickest patients, enabling them to get out of bed to do normal kid stuff.

The program, called PICU Up!, is based on research that shows kids sleep better at night and recover faster when they’re out and about, building towers, dressing dolls, getting fresh air in the rooftop garden, and, yes, scooting down the hall. “We need to give kids an opportunity to be kids, no matter how sick they are,” says program director Sapna Kudchadkar, M.D. 

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis

The genome sequences of childhood-cancer patients hold clues about what causes the disease and ideas for treatments, but they’re hidden in an almost unfathomable amount of data. As one of the few medical centers that routinely analyzes the complete genome for every patient (with their parents’ permission), St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has sped up process by collaborating with Microsoft and data-management company DNAnexus to host a one-of-a-kind cloud-based system. “A project that used to take us two years now takes us a long weekend,” says Jinghui Zhang, Ph.D., chair of computational biology.

Since the St. Jude Cloud launched in April, it has helped confirm that mutations are related to UV damage in pediatric B cell leukemia patients, suggesting that sunlight exposure may play a role. Next year, St. Jude plans to add data from the National Cancer Institute and other organizations, raising the chances of turning up more genetic connections.

Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital, Connecticut

Sick babies are usually whisked off to a hospital’s NICU while moms remain in the maternity unit, which may be on a different floor. But at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital, hospitalized moms and NICU babies can share a room, a concept called couplet care. “Learning that I could recover in the same room as my baby was a boost during a terrifying labor,” says Jen Stauffer, whose son, Anders, was born seven weeks early despite a problem-free pregnancy. “Being able to look at Anders anytime—even with the monitors and wires—reassured me and helped me heal.”

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center

Instead of moving fragile babies to another unit for crucial scans, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center developed a mini MRI for the NICU that offers precise radiation-free images in just ten to 30 minutes. “We’ve been able to avoid sedating babies by using complementary techniques like swaddling,” says James Greenberg, M.D., director of neonatology.

University of Rochester Medical Center’s Golisano Children’s Hospital, New York

A new mind-blowing medical device at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Golisano Children’s Hospital combines two common scans (an MRI and a PET) so kids have to go through only one procedure—a big stress reducer. This is the first pediatric facility to have this equipment and it's adorably decorated it to resemble a pirate ship. Kids can even watch a movie during their scan while “onboard” the ship for treatment.

University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, Minneapolis

Since a young child’s brain is still very adaptable, addressing stress and anxiety early reduces the risk of problems later in childhood. The University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital established a unique Birth to Three Clinic and Early Childhood Mental Health Program for little ones who have been showing fear, or poor impulse control.

UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles

Focused on treating pediatric cancer, UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital’s Gay M. Crooks, M.D., is studying how to produce T cells with cancer-fighting properties so patients whose own cells aren’t plentiful or robust enough can still undergo this treatment. Another perk for patients at Mattel? Kids can eat with their parents and sibs in the Family Resource Room during special dinners sponsored by community groups.

Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago

Who better to develop a kids’ health app than experts at children’s hospitals? For parents of preemies at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, the NICU2HOME app (free, available January 1, 2019 on iOS and Android) provides a “Journey Map” to track your baby’s progress, personalized educational materials, and a secure connection to post updates for family and friends. A study of an earlier version found that the app made parents feel more prepared for discharge and more confident while caring for their preemies.

But the tech-savvy solutions don’t stop there. For parents who can’t be in their child’s room during daily bedside rounds in the pediatric intensive-care unit, the hospital has set up a secure app that works like FaceTime to participate virtually.

Children’s Hospital Colorado, Aurora

After watching a lung doctor use a tiny endoscope during surgery on a child, Joel Friedlander, D.O., a pediatric gastroenterologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, wondered if the same scope could be used to biopsy the esophagus of patients who suffer from inflammation, typically related to food allergy. He tried it and it worked, turning a procedure that used to require an entire day and general anesthesia into one that now takes five minutes. Kids sit in a chair to receive lidocaine mist in each nostril, pop on virtual-reality glasses, have the endoscopy, and can then head back to school. “Doing the procedure this way gives parents a chance to see everything, and they can hold their kid’s hand, which is a kind of therapy for both child and parent,” says Dr. Friedlander.

The hospital's efforts to put families at ease don't stop with medical advancements, though. It also uses its Seacrest Studios (one of ten nationwide supported by the Ryan Seacrest Foundation) for patient-hosted TV shows.

Children’s National Health System, Washington, D.C.

Doctors at Children’s National Health System came up with a better way to treat children with osteoid osteoma, benign bone tumors. The standard treatment requires drilling through muscle and exposing the area to radiation, but the new method uses sound-wave energy to destroy the tumor, reducing the child’s risk of complications and speeding up recovery.

UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, Cleveland

A pediatric allergist at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital patented an EpiPen alternative that doesn’t need to be stabbed into the skin. You simply place the device, called the Medeject, on the skin, push a button, and hold for five seconds as a small needle delivers the lifesaving medicine. The device, which its inventor, Leigh Kerns, M.D., hopes will be marketed in a few years, will come in multiple sizes, including one for infants and toddlers.

Another nifty invention out of UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital: heated surgical beds that keep temperature-sensitive preemies warm during operations in the NICU.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

Babies born at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta with hypoplastic left-heart syndrome, a birth defect in which the left half of the heart is underdeveloped, may soon receive dime-size patches of previously discarded cardiac stem cells. “We think the patches will strengthen the heart’s right side so it can compensate while doctors redirect blood away from the left side through a series of operations,” says Michael E. Davis, Ph.D., director of the Children’s Heart and Outcomes Research Center.  

Older patients at the hospital are getting a different, yet just as amazing, dose of medicine to make their hearts happy: trading cards that feature the hospital’s 16 pet-therapy dogs. Kids can collect all their favorite furry friends who even have their own Insta: @therapydogsofchoa!

UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh

For babies and toddlers, the side effects of antibiotics frequently used to treat ear infections may be almost as distressing as the problem itself. Diarrhea or diaper rash adds to the misery for up to a third of kids ages 6 to 23 months who receive the standard treatment—a combo of amoxicillin and clavulanate for ten days. But research at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh has shown that reducing the amount of clavulanate lowers the chance of side effects by more than one third and works just as well at returning babies to their happy selves.

“In our study, only 1 percent of parents stopped giving the antibiotic with less clavulanate because of side effects compared with 10 percent whose children took the usual amount,” says lead researcher Alejandro Hoberman, M.D. That’s vital, because when a child doesn’t take the medicine for the prescribed duration, the chance of antibiotic resistance increases. The new formulation will be undergoing final testing for FDA approval within two years.

Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

Children with diabetes need to check their blood sugar four to ten times a day, and keeping track of the info can be overwhelming. To help, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin developed the app BLUELOOP for iOS and Android ($8 monthly, fee waived for those who can’t afford it). The nifty tool allows parents to record blood-sugar levels, log carb intake, and add comments. You can share the info with your child’s doctors, making visits more effective.

Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, Ohio

The Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s cutting-edge Center for Injury Research and Policy is making the world a safer place by putting helpful information in the palm of your hand. Its Make Safe Happen app in partnership with Nationwide Insurance is full of age-specific safety checklists, calendar reminders to replace smoke-detector batteries, and even guided conversations about prepping your kids for emergencies. (Free on iOS and Android)

And while safety comes first, play is also a priority when it comes advancements in the hospital’s Family & Volunteer Services department: The staff has teamed up with engineering students from The Ohio State University in Columbus to deliver rewired toy guitars, battery-operated cars, and plush toys to kids who struggle with fine or gross motor skills. The kids can simply push a single large button on their custom toy to activate all the fun functions.

C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital/ University of Michigan Health System, Ann Arbor

You won’t believe what pediatricians at C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital can fix with a 3-D printer. For kids with a rare disease that causes their windpipe to periodically collapse and prevent normal breathing, Glenn Green, M.D., associate professor of pediatric otolaryngology helped develop an inexpensive custom implant using CT scans to determine the exact size needed. The implant is sewn around the patient’s airways and helps them grow normally. The splint itself is made of a material that biodegrades in a few years.

Boston Children’s Hospital

To shorten surgeries, Boston Children’s Hospital and other innovative pediatric centers are also making 3-D models that doctors practice on before a complex operation. “When I used it for one intricate brain surgery, we reduced the operating time from five or six hours to two and a half,” says Ed Smith, M.D., a pediatric neurosurgeon at the hospital.

Boston Children’s Hospital also created a digital platform, called Circulation, that allows families to easily find a ride to an appointment; the technology is now available at 1,600 medical facilities in 45 states.

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