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Pediatric Vital Signs: Measuring and Improving the Health of a Population

October 1, 2020
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Nationwide Children’s Hospital and its community partners have begun an “audacious” project to help every child in their region.

Despite the best efforts of primary care providers and children’s hospitals, some children do not receive the care they need. Patients can only spend a limited amount of time in a medical office; some who would benefit the most may not come in at all.

Nationwide Children’s Hospital, like many other institutions, has wrestled with those obstacles for years. In the words of Kelly Kelleher, MD, MPH, the hospital’s vice president of Community Health, Nationwide Children’s has wanted to adjust its perspective “from health care to health,” or from a focus on the delivery of individual services to a focus on population-level wellbeing.

This is part of the motivation behind Partners For Kids®, Nationwide Children’s accountable care organization, which uses quality improvement, care coordination and other programs to help 400,000 children covered by Medicaid managed care in Ohio. It’s also driven the Healthy Neighborhoods Healthy Families initiative, which uses high-quality housing, workforce training, student mentorship and other methods to improve some of Columbus, Ohio’s most at-risk neighborhoods.

These are important moves toward population health, but they still can’t reach an entire region’s children. So what could? How could every child’s health be accounted for and improved?

That is the audacious goal of Nationwide Children’s Pediatric Vital Signs project. In the same way that traditional vital signs such as temperature and blood pressure give an indication of an individual child’s health, Pediatric Vital Signs is an effort to meaningfully measure the wellbeing of all children in Franklin County, Ohio across eight metrics that span childhood. That mindset is being used to define and implement interventions to improve overall outcomes, regardless of where or how children receive health care.

“We don’t want to restrict ourselves to what would be easy, or what could just be accomplished by a children’s hospital acting alone. We are deeply committed to ‘health,’ with every meaning of that word. A children’s hospital has the resources to be able to lead, but it takes everyone.” — Alex Kemper, MD, MPH, MS

These metrics are: infant mortality, kindergarten readiness, high school graduation, obesity, teenage pregnancy, suicide, all-cause child mortality and a hybrid measure called preventive services delivery (including measurements of lead screening, primary vaccination series, breastfeeding and various behavioral and physical health screenings).

Some of the metrics, such as kindergarten readiness and high school graduation rates, aren’t even strictly health care-related – but they do impact a child’s life and health. All of the metrics have elements of racial and ethnic disparity that must be addressed. All need a broad coalition of stakeholders, including public health officials, schools, non-profit agencies, civic organizations and local governments, to come together to make a difference.

“We don’t want to restrict ourselves to what would be easy, or what could just be accomplished by a children’s hospital acting alone,” says Alex Kemper, MD, MPH, MS, division chief of Primary Care Pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s, professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University and lead author of a commentary piece in the Journal of Pediatrics introducing Pediatric Vital Signs. “We are deeply committed to ‘health,’ with every meaning of that word. A children’s hospital has the resources to be able to lead, but it takes everyone.”

“Take a mom who is 8 months pregnant, doing her best, who takes off from work to ride the bus to the hospital for a prenatal visit. Imagine the bus is late, so she’s late, and her provider can’t see her, so she has to reschedule. Think of all the barriers she faces, how many systems are involved. Health care, insurance, public transportation, workplace. All of those need to be represented.” — Mysheika W. Roberts, MD, MPH

If Nationwide Children’s can prove that it works in central Ohio, the hope is that other children’s hospitals and regions will take on the challenge too.

“This is very difficult. It’s why no one has done it before,” says Richard Brilli, MD, Nationwide Children’s recently retired chief medical officer, who helped develop Pediatric Vital Signs. “We’re on a journey to make it happen, and there’s no reason to think this couldn’t work in any other city.”

The Model for Action — Infant Mortality

Well before Pediatric Vital Signs took shape, Nationwide Children’s and public health leaders, city and county government officials and the four largest Franklin County health care systems convened a task force that proved how the project could work in practice. By 2013, Columbus had one of the highest infant mortality rates among the United States’ largest cities, and Black babies were 2.5 times more likely to die than white babies.

Nationwide Children’s did not have as much direct influence on infant mortality as the area’s birth centers or prenatal care providers, but the hospital cared deeply about the issue and the racial inequities it highlighted, says Christine Sander, MHA, Nationwide Children’s director of Infant Wellness and a core member of the Pediatric Vital Signs team.

“Infant mortality was an early step into this space,” Sander says. “Nationwide Children’s role was and is to convene, to influence and push, but not to control. Everyone who could have an influence needed to be around the table and to have skin in the game. No one can do this kind of work alone.”

The “convening” work was crucial, and sometimes difficult, says Mysheika Roberts, MD, MPH, health commissioner for the City of Columbus. Hospitals and family-centered organizations understood the issue clearly, but some businesses did not understand how infant mortality affected them or the effect they could have on it.

Andrew Ginther, then the Columbus City Council president and now the city’s mayor, became a champion for the effort to reduce infant mortality. When stakeholders heard stories of the people who needed help, they began to understand the depth of the challenge — and who needed to be at the table as part of the solution, says Dr. Roberts.

“Take a mom who is 8 months pregnant, doing her best, who takes off from work to ride the bus to the hospital for a prenatal visit,” she says. “Imagine the bus is late, so she’s late, and her provider can’t see her, so she has to reschedule. Think of all the barriers she faces, how many systems are involved. Health care, insurance, public transportation, workplace. All of those need to be represented.”

People representing those systems and many more ultimately came together in a Columbus-wide initiative called CelebrateOne (focused on the goal of reaching a child’s first birthday) and a related initiative called Ohio Better Birth Outcomes (focused on health care). Through a wide range of interventions, from safe sleep education to tobacco cessation programs to greater long-acting reversible contraception access, the overall
infant mortality rate declined from an average of 8.1 deaths per 1,000 live births from 2012 through 2016 to 6.9 deaths per 1,000 in 2019 — eventually reading 7.1 deaths per 1,000 in late 2019.

The issue has in no way been solved — the Black/white racial disparity actually widened in 2019 — but Celebrate One and Ohio Better Birth Outcomes allow for a vigilance and focused plan of action that didn’t exist before. They have also pointed the way to Pediatric Vital Signs.

Choosing the Pediatric Vital Signs

In 2015, the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) introduced a set of 15 standardized core metrics that could be used to evaluate the country’s health, and they mirrored and helped shape the thinking of Dr. Brilli, Dr. Kelleher and their team. NAM called the metrics “Vital Signs.” Many of those signs seemed tailored for adult health, but the overall concept made sense to use as a model, so Nationwide Children’s called its project “Pediatric Vital Signs.”

“We have a whole population health infrastructure with Partners For Kids, with Healthy Neighborhoods Healthy Families, our school-based health programs and so much more,” says Dr. Kelleher. “They all feed this vision of ‘Best Outcomes’ for everyone. They all roll up into what we wanted for Pediatric Vital Signs.”

One of the greatest challenges was selecting the signs, says Dr. Brilli. They all needed to be relevant to large numbers of children across the entire period of childhood, so that improving any of them would mean a broad improvement across the population. They also must be measurable, with reliable data underlying any interventions, just as with the infant mortality efforts.

Over the course of 15 months, the Pediatric Vital Signs team chose the eight metrics, all of which have lifelong implications. The team also developed or gathered ways to measure the signs; created individual teams to address them, including external community partners; chose ambitious improvement goals for 2020, 2025 and 2030; and identified interventions to achieve each goal, spelled out through a series of key driver diagrams.

Some of the Pediatric Vital Signs, such as infant mortality, have years of collaboration and intervention already pointing the way to the future. Some, such as high school graduation, have only scratched the surface. But what happens from here on is clear.

“We’ve done all this work to build coalitions. We developed the signs,” says Sander. “Now we have to execute.”

The Future and Why Other Regions Should Monitor Their Own Pediatric Vital Signs

The COVID-19 pandemic and this year’s spotlighting of racism and racial inequities have only emphasized the importance of Pediatric Vital Signs.

“We now have these measures that will help us know exactly where kids are falling behind — in immunizations, in kindergarten readiness, in all of the other areas — and allow us to creatively develop ways to catch them up,” says Dr. Kemper. “Social determinants of health and racial disparities have always been built into the Pediatric Vital Signs work, and we can only be successful if we’re successful in addressing them.”

The national events of 2020 have heightened the national appetite for measures like Pediatric Vital Signs, says Benard Dreyer, MD, director of the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at NYU Langone Health and a past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“As an example, we know that for children not ready to start school because of poor self-regulation and basic skills, it’s very difficult to make up that difference later,” he says. “Children who are behind in kindergarten are likely going to be behind in fifth grade and eighth grade. If you could really do something for kindergarten readiness, it would do a lot for the trajectory of a child’s life.”

“I’m not daunted. In fact, I’m inspired. We don’t have it all figured out. But think how much of an impact this could have to help every child achieve their full potential.” — Richard J. Brilli, MD

The issue, Dr. Dreyer says, is so many of the Pediatric Vital Signs represent what are considered “intractable problems.” Too big, too complicated.

“If you can get the right people in the right coalitions and show that you can move the needle, that would be a great stimulus to other people throughout the country,” he says.

Along with improving the wellbeing of children in central Ohio, inspiring others is a primary goal of Pediatric Vital Signs, according to Dr. Brilli. Such an enormous project can seem paralyzing, but Nationwide Children’s hopes to show that it’s possible – and that a children’s hospital, with a service mission and deep community goodwill, is the perfect organization to make it happen.

Eight vital signs may be too many for some to take on at first, Dr. Brilli says. Other signs may fit a certain region better than the ones Nationwide Children’s has chosen. The important thing is to make the effort.

“I’m not daunted. In fact, I’m inspired,” Dr. Brilli says. “We don’t have it all figured out. But think how much of an impact this could have to help every child achieve their full potential.”

Reference:

Kemper AR, Kelleher KJ, Allen S, Sander C, Brilli RJ. Improving the health of all children in our community: the Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Franklin County, Ohio, Pediatric Vital Signs project. The Journal of Pediatrics. 2020 Jul; 222:227-230.

 

Image Credit: Nationwide Children’s