An Immigrant Child’s Healthcare Journey

June 12, 2024 by Elizabeth Ireson, MD, FAAP; Heidi Colbert, MSW, LICSW; Cynthia Ortiz, BS; Hope Rhodes, MD, MPH, FAAP & Padma Swamy, MD, MPH, FAAP

June is National Immigrant Heritage Month – an opportunity to honor the United States’ varied immigrant communities. For many families immigrating to the U.S., the District of Columbia (D.C.), Maryland, and Virginia (D.M.V.) area becomes home. Between April 2022 and October 2023, an estimated 12,500 migrants from the Southern border arrived in D.C. from the southern border. Dr. Lekha Anantuni recently published a piece with the CHAI News & Views Blog illustrating the importance of a well-rounded approach to addressing immigrant children’s health, and the pivotal role that pediatricians play in creating a nurturing environment. A team of social workers, care coordinators, and health care providers from Children’s National has been working to support the unique health care and socioeconomic needs for newly arrived immigrant families as they are joining our communities. We hope to further illustrate how our hospital system seeks to support and empower this growing population. 

Many newly arrived migrant families temporarily resided in hotels leased by the D.C. Council to serve as shelters. More recently, efforts have shifted toward utilizing respite centers and securing temporary lodging in the community. Families may receive support from several local organizations such as Catholic Charities or SAMU First Response. Our immigrant health team has led educational sessions for families at the hotels and respite center, covering topics such as injury prevention, nutrition, and common pediatric concerns. When it comes to pediatric care for each child, health care access depends on each families’ place of residence, time in the area, and medical needs, among other factors. We strive to help families navigate this complex system. 

The Children’s National Mobile Health Unit, provides care for under-resourced children in DC and Maryland through place-based care. The Mobile Clinic has played an important role in providing a health welcome for immigrant families. In September 2022, the mobile clinic program started visiting the hotels where immigrant families were housed. These visits also helped immigrant children connect with our team of social workers and family service associates who provide guidance on obtaining health care coverage and navigating the health care system. The clinic prioritized pediatric immunizations to ensure children could be enrolled in school and then be further connected to the community. By virtue of being on site and seeing kids, the clinic would identify children with acute or complex health needs and then connect them to a medical home, like the Children’s National Columbia Heights Clinic.   

At the Children’s National Columbia Heights Clinic, we offer weekly immigrant health clinic appointments to increase access to primary care for recently arrived immigrant children with acute or complex health needs. Our immigrant health team can refer patients from the mobile health unit. In primary care, we strive to welcome families into the healthcare system. Many of our providers are bilingual, with interpretive sources also widely available. We review the child’s physical, emotional, and socioeconomic needs through a trauma-informed lens. We follow evidence-based guidelines for testing and treatment related to each child’s unique health care needs. We are well-equipped to connect recently arrived immigrant families to medical sub-specialists, mental health care, Early Intervention programs, and free legal support. Our goal is to ensure that every family establishes a medical home and can access the care their child needs in a supportive environment.  

These programs allow us to play an important role in immigrant families’ health care journeys. We seek to welcome families into our community and connect them with the resources they need to thrive in all areas of their physical, emotional, social, and financial well-being. Despite these efforts, many families continue to face barriers to integrating into their community and accessing healthcare. Not all families qualify for health insurance. It can be difficult to attend doctors’ appointments due to transportation or navigation barriers. Acclimating to a new city and culture is challenging on its own and made more challenging by medical needs. It is important to dedicate funding, time, and personnel to immigrant health focused programs.  


Header image from Freepik

About the author

Elizabeth (Libby) Ireson, MD

General Academic Pediatrics Fellow at Children's National Hospital

Heidi Colbert, MSW, LICSW

Social Work Team Lead at THEARC & Mobile Medical Program within Children's National Hospital

Cynthia Ortiz, BS

Community Health Worker/FSA at THEARC & Mobile Medical Program within Children's National Hospital

Hope Rhodes, MD, MPH, FAAP

Medical Director at THEARC/General & Community Pediatrics within Children's National Hospital

Padma Swamy, MD, MPH, FAAP

Associate Medical Director at THEARC/General & Community Pediatrics within Children's National Hospital