Children are only 25% of our population, but they are 100% of our future. Our economy, national security, and workforce depend on fostering a healthy generation of kids. Last week, I was invited to speak at the Aspen Institute’s Children’s Forum on BabyNoggin’s impact on early child health. Fourteen top American and Canadian children’s hospital CEOs and presidents of their foundation gathered, discussed, and debated what a children-first agenda would look like for our nation. This agenda is especially needed given that:
1. One in six children have developmental delays. Yet 70% of at-risk children are not properly diagnosed until after reaching kindergarten. These children lose two to three years of critical intervention where the human brain is most malleable to change and growth.
2. 0.6% of babies will die before their first birthday due to birth defects, preterm birth, low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and other injuries.
3. Adverse childhood experiences of toxic stress lead to a sevenfold increase in risk for substance abuse and tenfold increase in risk for depression in adulthood.
4. It takes 17 years to translate scientific knowledge into practice.
5. The proposed Medicaid cuts by the GOP are projected to lead to 36 million children losing health insurance coverage.
For two days at the Aspen Institute, scientists, policymakers, philanthropists, pediatricians, and pediatric-hospital CEOs convened, kickstarted partnerships, planned political advocacy, and “got loud.” Experts and business leaders agreed that:
1. Kindergarten and 3rd-grade reading readiness are the best indicators of a child’s likelihood to graduate from high school, earn good wages, and have better health outcomes.
2. Children’s education and health are critically linked. Kids need to be healthy to learn. One sick day is one more day the child is not learning in school, and his/her parents are not earning wages to support the child.
3. Social determinants of health such as housing, food insecurity, and mental illness directly impact a child’s health and overall wellbeing. Healthy kids needs healthy families, which need healthy neighborhoods. Acute care in hospital settings is no longer viable scientifically or economically. In order to scale, healthcare focus must switch to preventive and community health.
4. Politics and lobbying for children are hard and seems “dirty.” Yet recent history has shown that healthcare is the US is highly political.
So what would a children-first agenda look like? Two hundred participants left the conference feeling inspired, committed to make a difference, and agreeing that the agenda should include:
- A united partnership and messaging from all the stakeholders.
- A political advocacy group dedicated to kids, championed by Mark Shriver, the president of “Save the Children Network”
- A guarantee that all 5-year-olds are ready for kindergarten, both physically and mentally.
- Even after the height of hope and enthusiasm at the Children’s Forum, there are a few items that still need more attention in order to achieve truly comprehensive child-focused healthcare:
- Clear actionable goals or next steps: No one (out of the handful that I interviewed afterwards) felt a good sense of what needed to be done or what could be done, but 100% agreed that they are hopeful and optimistic.
- Children’s voice: We heard a lot from experts but not from our actual customers or the very people we try to serve: kids. What are their views of their experience? What do they think the children’s hospitals can improve on?
- Other stakeholders’ voice: parents, grandparents, teachers, childcare providers, and insurance providers are all critically related to children’s health. If they need to be involved in enhancing the care of children, they also need to have a seat at the table.
After all, the forum was only two days. It served as the beginning of a commitment from this nation’s top children’s hospitals and foundations. All the experts concurred that “children cannot wait!” As Frederick Douglass stated, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” We, every one of us, need to start now – to advocate for our kids and our future, locally, nationally, and globally.