July 20, 2016

Author: Dr. Marissa J. Levine, M.D., M.P.H

State Health Commissioner, Virginia Department of Health

New Perspectives: A Blog Series

 

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) applauds the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation’s 10-year investment in Smart Beginnings and recognizes the progress Virginia has made. The improvements in outcomes related to early childhood and educational success in Virginia are significant, especially in light of an increase in the percent of children living poverty.  However, as the Virginia School Readiness Report Card (“the report card”) aptly highlights, there are significant disparities in these key outcomes.  As such, much work remains to be done here in Virginia.

I am pleased to report that a collaborative effort in Virginia has resulted in an action framework to better align the efforts needed to impact these disparate outcomes.  Virginia’s Plan for Well-Being (“the plan”), which complements the report card, provides a data driven approach to deal with the burden of issues that exist and, importantly, emphasizes, as the critical step to break the existing cycle of disparity, the need to assure a strong start for all children in the Commonwealth.  As part of this data-driven approach, VDH has developed a Health Opportunity Index (HOI) to help communities understand all the factors that lead to health so they can work to improve health outcomes for all people. The HOI is a composite measure of the social determinants of health, factors that relate to a community’s well-being and the health status of its population. Using the HOI can help us understand the communities that, through community-led efforts, would benefit from additional support and guidance. 

The report card and the plan emphasize the issues and approaches necessary to move Virginia forward.  Health-related factors affect school performance, and in turn academic success is associated with health outcomes during childhood and later in adulthood.   Investing in programs that lead to improved health for Virginia’s children benefits everyone and reduces long-term costs to the Commonwealth. The best investment we can intentionally make is to improve the opportunity for all children to, as early as possible, get on the trajectory in life that better assures health and well-being. 

The plan outlines strategies that our organizations can support to build foundations for healthy, resilient youth and families.  Some examples include:

·         Form neighborhood collaboratives co-led by community members in under-resourced communities to identify obstacles and develop plans to address the root causes of health inequities

·         Expand home visiting and family support programs

·         Increase developmental screening for childhood milestones and delays

·         Increase enrollment of three to five year old children in quality-rated early childhood education programs

·         Increase the number of providers and educators who screen for adverse childhood events (ACEs)

·         Expand programs that help families affected by ACEs, toxic stress, domestic violence, mental illness, and substance abuse

·         Expand programs that teach positive parenting

·         Increase opportunities for fathers to be engaged in programs and services for their children

·         Increase professional development training opportunities for early childhood providers

Collaborative public-private approaches, like Smart Beginnings, are needed to emphasize a multifactor approach that includes policies and entrepreneurial strategies to sustainably change systems for the better. VDH welcomes the opportunity to continue to collaborate with VECF and Smart Beginnings to assure that all of Virginia’s children have a strong start. Our children, the next generation, are counting on us to align our efforts and intentionally improve the opportunities for all of them to attain health and well-being. Virginians have always risen to the occasion when faced with a challenge.  I am confident the work that remains will be done and Virginia will continue its path toward becoming the healthiest state in the nation.