HRSA's Mary Wakefield on Healthy Baby Efforts: A NewPublicHealth Q&A

Oct 26, 2011, 2:43 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Wakefield Mary Wakefield, Health Resources and Services Administration

The annual Association of State and Territorial Health Officers (ASTHO) President’s Challenge will focus on infant mortality and healthy babies this year. ASTHO’s Healthy Babies Project will support state health officials and their staff in improving infant health outcomes.

ASTHO is collaborating with several organizations and government agencies, including the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). The latest HRSA data shows that 29,138 infants died before their first birthday—an infant mortality rate of 6.8 deaths per 1,000 births in 2007, which is unchanged from the previous year. And one in eight babies is born too soon, according to the March of Dimes, posing health and development risks for the baby and stress issues for the family. NewPublicHealth spoke with HRSA Administrator Mary Wakefield, PhD, RN, about the partnership.

NewPublicHealth: This collaboration is not your first with ASTHO?

Dr. Wakefield: We’ve actually had a longstanding relationship with ASTHO and we’ve worked with their leadership and their board and members on different issues over the years. This year their new president David Lakey, from Texas, has a particular focus on improving birth outcomes, and this is one of those areas we focus on at HRSA, particularly through our Maternal Child Health Bureau. We very much share the same concerns and I think complement each other’s efforts. We’re working in partnership with ASTHO on this and also working with other stakeholders too, including state divisions of Maternal and Child Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the March of Dimes.

NPH: What are some programs at HRSA that address healthy babies?

Dr. Wakefield : One of our signature programs is the home visiting program. We are rolling out the home visiting program across the country with a focus on at-risk families. We have eight different models that states can choose from and I’m really excited about that initiative for a lot of reasons but not the least of which is we’ve got evidence that shows the impact of certain home visiting models. It’s those models that are being supported and deployed through states right down to local community levels. Home visiting programs—which link a young, at-risk family with a health care professional—are really critical in helping ensure the health and well-being of newborns and also helping parents to succeed in caring for newborns and young children.

But there are other strategies too. We support and participate in text4baby. That’s another strategy that’s done in partnership with different organizations. Text4baby allows expectant mothers and new mothers that have an infant under the age of one to sign up and then receive free text messages. The beauty of this is that those text messages are timed to the delivery of that baby. So they’re not generic.

NPH: What persuasive messages do you have for health officers who worry that they don’t have the financial resources to promote healthy baby initiatives?

Dr. Wakefield: One of the data points that always attracts my attention is how well the United States does compared to other industrialized countries in terms of infant mortality, and the answer is not as well as we should be or could be. We know that we can improve in parts of the country in protecting our most vulnerable population.

NPH: HRSA recently announced that the National Health Service Corps had grown to 10,000 health care professionals out in the field. How is that making a difference in the community?

Dr. Wakefield: The absence or presence of a family physician for a community can make a tremendous difference. These are numbers that, as I’ve tracked the National Health Service Corps throughout my career, I never would have dreamed of, and the difference that it makes to communities, whether we’re talking urban inner city or we’re talking rural, is extremely significant. It can sometimes mean the difference between access to a healthcare provider or not.

>>Read more on maternal and infant health.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.