Caregiver Health Promotion in Pediatrics: A Novel Opportunity to Enhance Adult and Child Health



From the Division of General Internal Medicine (Dr. Venkataramani), and the Department of Pediatrics (Dr. Venkataramani and Dr. Solomon), Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD.

In 2003, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published the recommendations of its Task Force on the Family, an initiative borne of the recognition that pediatricians have an important role in promoting well-functioning families as a means of ultimately promoting pediatric health.1 Among the various facets of “family pediatrics” discussed in these recommendations was the practice of addressing caregiver health or health behaviors which directly impact children’s health. “Pediatricians have both opportunity and reason to take note of the health of their young patients’ parents,” declared the Task Force.1 Now, 15 years later, despite growing evidence to support the promotion of caregiver health as a means to improve child health, pediatric providers continue to face challenges in successfully fulfilling this aspect of family pediatrics, challenges that we believe deserve the attention of adult providers and health systems.

Benefits Beyond Pediatric Preventive Care

Drawing upon evidence showing that caregiver health or health behaviors impact children’s health (the “reason” to intervene), current guidelines identify several caregiver-related issues on which pediatric providers are encouraged to focus their caregiver health promotion efforts. Specifically, Bright Futures, the AAP’s comprehensive evidence-driven resource for guidance regarding pediatric preventive care in the United States, highlights several caregiver health-related issues to be addressed during pediatric primary care visits.2 For example, in recognition of the multiple detrimental effects secondhand tobacco smoke exposure has on child health,3-5 the AAP recommends pediatrician-led parental tobacco use screening, counseling, and support of cessation efforts (including prescription of nicotine replacement therapies), practices that are also supported by the American Medical Association.2,3,5 Similarly, in order to promote the protection of children against pertussis and influenza, Bright Futures recommends screening and encouraging caregiver immunization against these diseases.2 Pediatricians are encouraged to routinely screen for maternal depression, given the far-reaching implications of caregiver mental health on children’s health,2,6,7 and more recently the AAP has recommended screening fathers for depression in the perinatal period as well.8 Screening and appropriate referral for caregivers (and thereby children) exposed to intimate partner violence is another practice highlighted by the guidelines.2

Efforts have been made to expand the framework to other issues with similar potential to impact current and future generations of children, such as caregiver family planning.2,9,10 And there exist still other issues which may be particularly well-suited to being addressed through the caregiver health promotion framework, such as follow-up care for mothers with gestational diabetes. These mothers are at high-risk for the development of type 2 diabetes and having subsequent pregnancies affected by poor glycemic control, but traditionally have had poor follow-up rates in the postpartum period and beyond.11 Their regular interactions with pediatric providers resulting from the frequent visits required for their infants presents an important, and as yet untapped, opportunity to re-engage them in recommended medical care and prevent adverse outcomes for their future children as well as themselves.

The maternal gestational diabetes example highlights an important point: caregiver health promotion in pediatric settings can have direct health benefits for caregivers. As such, there are arguably additional reasons for health systems and adult providers to support the practice of caregiver health promotion in pediatric settings. First, it may represent one of the only exposures to the health care setting and health promotion activities for certain caregivers. Caregivers are often younger adults, an age-group that is less likely to have a usual source of care or access preventive services, and low-income caregivers of any age are more likely to have limited health care access. Given the frequency of routine care (12 health maintenance visits in the child’s first 3 years of life),2 caregivers are likely to have more consistent access with the pediatric health care system than with the adult health care system. Therefore, pediatric visits represent an important touchpoint for these adults that could be leveraged to deliver services and further engage them with the adult health care system. Improving the reach of these services is particularly important in the era of population health where health systems, and particularly accountable care organizations, assume responsibility for the health-related outcomes of communities at large.

Second, studies exploring caregiver perspectives on pediatricians addressing their depression or tobacco use suggest that caregivers appreciate and welcome pediatrician engagement in their care.12,13 Thus, supporting these efforts enables patient-centered care delivery. And third, caregivers may be more motivated to address their own health issues or behaviors (such as substance use) when counseled on the implications of their actions on their children’s health. To the extent such counseling is more routinely (and effectively) delivered in the pediatric setting, supporting pediatrics-based counseling efforts is also in the best interest of adult health care providers.

Challenges to Caregiver Health Promotion in Pediatric Settings

Studies suggest that a fairly broad scope of caregiver health promotion activities do occur in pediatric practice. In our survey of a nationally representative sample of children’s primary care physicians (including pediatricians, family medicine physicians, and medicine-pediatrics physicians), over three-quarters of respondents reported addressing at least 3 caregiver health issues (including maternal depression, tobacco use, family planning, influenza immunization status, intimate partner violence exposure, and caregiver health insurance status) during well-infant or well-child visits.14 At the same time, we found limited depth in practice in terms of the regularity with which caregiver issues are addressed at visits or, when applicable, services beyond screening are offered to caregivers. For example, we found that only 36% of physicians addressed caregiver exposure to intimate partner violence in at least half of the well-infant or well-child visits they conducted.14 And while the vast majority of our respondents addressed parental tobacco use with some regularity, less than 15% reported assisting parents with cessation efforts by prescribing cessation therapies. Other studies exploring practices surrounding maternal depression, intimate partner violence screening, or tobacco cessation counseling have revealed similar patterns with regards to the reach of caregiver health promotion in practices across the country.15-18

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