Healthy connections

Jan. 14, 2014 @ 04:34 PM

The first few months of a new-born baby’s life can be challenging times – the baby is vulnerable; parents, especially if they are single, are coping with new demands and routines; partners face stress and new dynamics in their relationships.

For the baby, these are important times. We know the early years, even the earliest months, are critical to a child’s brain development and ultimately shape his or her chances of success in school and life.

Since 2008, a program called Durham Connects has been working to ensure the best possible outcomes for the 3,000 or so babies born here each year. Its mission statement states that it intends “to increase child well-being by bridging the gap between parent needs and community resources.”

The program, as an article by The Herald-Sun’s April Dudash made clear on Sunday, is working.

Durham Connects was conceived by the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, working in cooperation with among others the Durham County Health Department.  A grant from the Duke Endowment helped get it off the ground and funded, along with the Pew Charitable Trusts, research to analyze results of the pilot program that preceded a full-scale launch.

While the program offers the most to at-risk families or those with greater socio-economic challenges, it is by design universal. Any newborn to Durham residents at Duke University Hospital or Duke Regional Hospital is eligible for a visit from a nurse trained to help identify the need for and connect parents with medical and other resources.

“To reach a high proportion of families and to have population impact, a program must be delivered universally so that families do not perceive that participation stigmatizes them as ‘poor or risky,’ and to maximize community acceptance,” a research report by the center pointed out. “But it must also use funds efficiently. DC engages every family but rapidly triages and concentrates resources to families with assessed higher needs.”

The center’s research -- initially, only half the newborns in the county participated in the program so that there outcomes could be compared with a control group receiving no new services -- attests to its success.

Families participating in the program had lower rates of anxiety and safer home environments. They were observed to use more positive parenting behavior.

Improving parenting behavior and creating a better environment for infants is in itself a worthy goal, but significantly, the research showed that the Durham Connects program saves real money. For every $1 spent to operate the home-visiting program, $3 was saved in emergency-room visits and other health care costs participants would have been expected to incur in the first six months.

Those savings begin to emerge in the first couple of months of a baby’s life, and continued to grow.

Given 3,000-plus births a year, that translates into a savings of $6.7 million against the $2.2 million cost of the program.

Added to the more intangible benefits of the program, that is a deal the community should continue to embrace and support.