Every family strives to give their children a strong start in life – physically, mentally, socially and educationally. Yet, the obstacles families face in raising children can be considerable. The COVID-19 pandemic has added new challenges to family life, with early childhood development particularly affected.
“We know early child development sets the foundation for lifelong learning, behavior and health,” said Paula Morgen, Director of ThedaCare Community Health Improvement. “The first three years after birth are ones of rapid growth and development, as a child’s brain creates complex neural pathways at unprecedented speed. We also know the earlier child developmental delays are detected and intervention begins, the greater the chance a child has of achieving his or her best potential.”
A recent Medical College of Wisconsin Advancing Healthier Wisconsin (AHW) research grant will now help connect families with children under the age of five to local developmental assistance resources in Green Lake, Marquette, Shawano, Waupaca and Waushara counties. First Five Fox Valley received the grant, with ThedaCare as its health care partner.
“Our most recent ThedaCare Community Health Needs Assessment for 2020-2022 showed more health disparities in rural counties, so we focused this grant request on providing assistance in five of the rural counties ThedaCare serves,” Morgen explained.
Barb Tengesdal, Ph.D., Director of First Five Fox Valley and Help Me Grow, reported the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant negative effect on early childhood development.
“In the midst of the pandemic, when families were quarantining and childcare centers were closed, young children weren’t able to interact socially with other children and engage in playful learning activities,” Dr. Tengesdal said. “They lost important learning opportunities, which shows up in our skills assessments. In the past 18 months, we have done more than 4,500 developmental screenings of children under the age of 5, in association with our 39 partner organizations in the Fox Valley. In comparing that data to pre-pandemic results, we saw that young children had huge developmental losses, especially toddlers. Language development, social/emotional development, fine motor and gross motor skills were all way behind where they should be.”
That data prompted work with ThedaCare to apply for this research grant.
“ThedaCare has always been on the forefront of improving community health,” said Dr. Tengesdal. “This is not the first time First 5 Fox Valley has teamed up with ThedaCare to support community and population health. ThedaCare provided CHAT funding to support the initial startup of the Help Me Grow Fox Valley program, enabling a robust beginning in the collaborative work that supports local navigators embedded in early childhood partner agencies such as Early Intervention Birth-to-three and Family Services Parent Connection.”
First Five Fox Valley (F5FV) is the Wisconsin affiliate for the national Help Me Grow (HMG) program, a national evidence-based model that promotes child development by creating pathways for families to connect to local community resources that help children thrive, including health care, quality early learning experiences, healthy nutrition and parent support activities.
Tracey Ratzburg, M.S., ThedaCare Community Health Specialist, explained HMG data collected in the Fox Valley counties noted the medical provider connection presented an opportunity for improvement.
“We know that 90% of children attend well-child visits,” said Ratzburg. “The question became: How do we support the family and the provider to recognize concerns and take action? In the past, a provider might see an issue with a child and refer him or her to a community program like Head Start, but never know if the connection happened until the child comes back for their next visit, which might be a year later.”
The backbone of the HMG model is a team of community navigators who routinely make personal calls to families to check on their child’s progress and help them connect to needed services.
“Our goal is that by placing a navigator within our health system, we are going strengthen the provider outreach piece of this model and facilitate the sharing of information and resources between parents, providers and local organizations to make sure kids 0 to 5 are getting any developmental help they may need,” Ratzburg said.
She noted the AHW grant is funding the HMG navigator position within ThedaCare and also in each county’s designated agency with whom ThedaCare is working.
As part of this initiative, ThedaCare embedded an “Ages and Stages Questionnaire” within its EPIC electronic medical records system that helps parents and providers identify children who may benefit from additional support.
“Based on a child’s scores, the provider will make a referral through EPIC to the ThedaCare HMG navigator, who will reach out to the family and, with their permission, connect them to the local community HMG navigator,” Ratzburg explained. “The navigator will connect them to the appropriate community resource(s) to assist their child’s development.”
The local HMG navigator also will reach out to participating families every few months and share results or additional needs with the ThedaCare HMG navigator, who will report back to the provider via the EPIC records system, providing a closed-loop system that will keep all parties involved informed.
“Partnerships and opportunities like this support optimal child development and fit within the ThedaCare mission of improving the health and well-being of the communities we serve,” said Morgen. “This effort is especially important to ensure our pediatric population is supported in their growth and development.”
ThedaCare will be implementing Help Me Grow across nine counties. The grant is funded through December 2023.
For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 17 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including eight hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique, best lives. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.
For more information, visit thedacare.org or follow ThedaCare on social media. Members of the media should call Cassandra Wallace, Public and Media Relations Consultant at 920.442.0328 or the ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah switchboard at 920.729.3100 and ask for the marketing person on call.