Akron Children’s Hospital on Tuesday hosted its first-ever Child Advocacy Summit, a call to action for public policies focused on children’s health and well-being, amid a troubling backdrop of poor outcomes on key health measures, persistent social problems in our communities and partisan rancor in our politics.
The summit at the Hilton Akron/Fairlawn marked 40 years of advocacy under William Considine, chief executive officer emeritus who served as hospital CEO starting in 1979.
The program featured expert panels as well as keynote addresses by neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, and J.D. Vance, New York Times bestselling author of Hillbilly Elegy. Gov. Mike DeWine also appeared to speak on behalf of his initiatives to expand funding for children’s programs.
Advocates discussed the need for policymakers to make children’s health a priority. Several speakers addressed issues of childhood trauma brought on by abuse, neglect, substance abuse and mental illness in the home, and the devastating effects on a child’s physical and mental health.
Ohio ranks among the bottom half of states on key measures of health and well-being, according to the Health Policy Institute of Ohio. Its infant-mortality rate, for instance, is among the highest in the nation. The rate among black infants is triple the rate among whites. Ohio kids are also more likely than children in other states to have 2 or more adverse (traumatic) experiences.
Dr. Gupta shared his perspective on the impact of chronic stress on families, citing reasons behind a decline in life expectancy over the past 3 years. This “tragic trend,” he said, has reversed 100 years of improved life expectancy and has not occurred elsewhere in the developed world.
Suicides, drug overdoses and alcoholism among white, working class people are driving the trend, he said.
“They are called the deaths of despair,” Dr. Gupta said. “Why has it so indiscriminately affected the United States and why so specifically the working class?”
Answers aren’t easy, but Dr. Gupta explained the notion of despair over “dashed expectations.” Those most affected are children of the World War II generation whose lives did not turn out as expected, as jobs vanished and wages stagnated.
“The idea of dashed expectations – to have expected something and not received it…. turns out to be a much bigger toxic stressor than we realized, and one that maybe psychologically is driving these deaths of despair,” he said.
Author Vance also touched on the American dream slipping away, and deep problems that often develop in families afterward.
Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir about growing up in a poor, working-class family that moved from Appalachia to a small town in Ohio.
He said in the wake of economic decline “a lot of social indicators of health fall by the wayside, and those problems are a little bit deeper and a little bit harder to fix.
“Once the economic problems set in, you have family disruption, you have drug abuse and alcohol abuse, you have childhood trauma. Those problems tend to take on a life of their own.”
He cited research showing adverse childhood traumatic experiences changes young brains, and multiple exposures are linked to physical and mental health problems later in life.
Considine said childhood trauma is a component of the mental health crisis gripping young people. The number of children who come to the hospital with social pathologies is deeply troubling, he said.
“We can’t keep up. We can’t hire enough psychiatrists and psychologists,” Considine said.
He said his goal is to bring child advocacy to the forefront and create a new children’s health care model. Advocates need to step up “branding” of public policies on behalf of children and push on elected representatives to advance funding.
“The decade of 2020 is a decade for children in this country. We can make it happen,” he said.
Panelists agreed children’s health programs do not receive the attention or funding they deserve. Financial considerations and projected increases in Medicare spending have overshadowed children’s health, even though investing in children saves money over time, said Shannon Jones, executive director of Groundwork Ohio, an advocacy group.
“You have to figure out a way to make that real for policymakers,” she said. “You have to have advocates willing to speak truth to power.”
Several speakers remarked about the challenging political climate. Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a bipartisan advocacy group, recalled the bipartisan backing of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in 1997.
“It’s so much harder now,” he said. “Everything is partisan. Health care is more complicated. Kids are often an afterthought.”
Gov. DeWine was adamant that Ohio needs to do more. His 2-year budget, under consideration by the General Assembly, includes $550 million for wraparound support services for schools and doubling state funding for county children’s services, to $151 million.
“I look at this as our opportunity to define where Ohio goes as a state,” he said. “We have to do things today that will impact where we go in the future.”
In closing, Akron Children’s President and CEO Grace Wakulchik implored the audience to embrace themes of the day: dream, believe, lead and achieve.
“Let’s dream about an equal chance for all children to grow up healthy,” she said. “Let’s believe we can create solutions to challenges we face. Let’s lead because it’s our responsibility as healthcare leaders to educate kids and take care of them.
“And let’s achieve, because we can do all the planning we want, but if we don’t achieve the outcomes we just heard people talking about, we really haven’t made a difference at all for the kids we serve.”
For further quotes and moments from the event, see this feed on Akron Children’s Twitter.