Doc McStuffins and Education Used to Fight Health Disparities

    • June 24, 2013

April Khadijah Inniss, MD, and Ashaunta Tumblin, MD, share a passion for protecting the health of children. While their approaches differ, they are each investigating innovative ways to stop health disparities before they start by intervening at the earliest stages of life.

Inniss, a 2012-2014 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Clinical Scholar, is a pediatrician who is investigating the most effective ways to deliver health messages through television and eventually film.

“Nielsen reports that children ages 2 to 5 watch more than 30 hours of television a week. I am looking for ways to improve health behavior using these channels,” Inniss said.

A recipient of multiple honors, Tumblin, a 2011-2013 RWJF Clinical Scholar, is seeking ways to reduce the number of children who are unprepared to succeed in school.  

“I see the school readiness gap and the health disparities gap as linked,” Tumblin explained. Her view is consistent with recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that connect lower levels of education with a number of health risks, including obesity and substance abuse. “I am attempting to disentangle the connection between the two by looking at home environments, parenting practices and the impact of factors such as poverty.”

Learning from Mom & Dad

Parents play a critical role in school readiness. It is up to them to teach their children the emotional and social skills they need to do well academically. “I set out to learn what parenting practices were used by people from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds to prepare children 4 years old and younger for school,” Tumblin said.

For her Clinical Scholar project, Tumblin held 16 focus groups comprised of Korean, African American and Latino parents. They were asked several questions including: How can parents help their children succeed in school? What do young children need to deal with racism?

“We found that Latino parents were very family-focused and supported their children’s self-esteem and development of social literacy by being very affectionate,” Tumblin reported. “Korean parents focused on nurturing the child no matter what they wanted to do, but they felt that their children had to focus on individual excellence. Black parents emphasized the importance of respect for those in authority and instructed their children to follow the rules.”

“Latinos did slightly more to prepare their children for racism than Black families. Korean families did not discuss race much at all. In all cases, the mothers handled more of this discussion than the fathers,” she said.

Tumblin intends to use her research results to “develop more effective cross-cultural approaches” to closing the school-readiness gap for child-care advocates, pediatricians, parents and educators.

Calling on Doc McStuffins

Inniss learned the power of creativity in medicine as an intern. “I was asked to perform a blood draw on a little boy we called a ‘frequent flyer.’ He was just 11, but he had been in and out of hospitals with a number of medical complications and he did not like dealing with physicians and nurses,” she recalled.

“Before entering his room, I grabbed a pen and paper and drew a cartoon featuring white blood cells as soldiers. I used the picture to explain how the ‘soldiers’ would help him to get well if, of course, he let me take the blood sample,” Inniss said.

Years later, Inniss encountered the boy as a young man when he visited the emergency room. “He smiled at me and said, ‘Remember those cartoons you drew for me? Well, thanks to you I was the only kid in my class who knew what white blood cells were.’”

“Once I became an RWJF scholar, I realized that I could bring this creativity to my research. I hope to someday create documentaries—like The Weight of the Nation—and use other media to teach kids and parents about health.” 

Inniss is getting started with a little help from the new Disney cartoon phenomenon Doc McStuffins. To the delight of approximately 1.7 million viewers of all ages, Doc McStuffins—an adorable and endearingly precocious  6-year-old African American girl—often opens her show by informing her young viewers that “staying healthy is smart and fun.” 

Clad in a little white coat, with a stethoscope around her neck and doctor’s bag by her side, Doc Mcstuffins teaches children about germs, contagious diseases and other health risks by treating her dolls and stuffed animals. The show also occasionally introduces viewers to Black female physicians at work. The ultimate goal of the Doc McStuffins character is to be a great doctor, just like her mom.

“The scripts are very engaging. They are written to help relieve children’s fears of going to the doctor and teach developmentally-appropriate health messages,” Inniss said. “Our study is testing the effectiveness of the Doc McStuffins’ episode intended to teach children about hunger cues and overeating. Eventually, we may test other messages such as those about hand washing and tooth brushing.”

Inniss is determined to make something positive out of the negative statistics on the impact of television and other forms of media on children. “I think it’s important to meet families where they are. The reality is that most parents are not preventing television watching, so I am taking a different approach by using TV and other media to help, rather than harm children.”


Related Websites

Learn more about the RWJF Clinical Scholars program.
For an overview of RWJF scholar and fellow opportunities, visit


Ashaunta Tumblin


April Khadijah Inniss