How Children’s National is Reimagining Children’s Health Advocacy

September 29, 2023 by Tania R. Brand, Henry Jan, Shama Nathan & Maggie Tisher

In our three-week Atlantis fellowship at Children’s National Hospital, we learned a great deal about the role of hospitals in the community and are happy to share our thoughts with you. Hospitals should be more than just curative healthcare; their role should be to treat the root causes of illness and disease by finding new and innovative ways to care for the whole person. Preventative healthcare is the future, and adopting an equitable community-engaged approach is paramount to its success in the communities that need it most. Through the core values of Children’s National; care, advocacy, research, and education; the hospital has been working tirelessly to improve not only the current health outcomes of children but also the health of their future generations. In the last Community Health Need Assessment (CHNA), the Child Health Advocacy Institute (CHAI) isolated four priority areas to increase the opportunity level of children in D.C., our team focused on healthy food, one of those priority areas. To understand the importance of this work, we spoke with Gina Dwyer, a data analyst for the CHAI, and Emily Frymark, a clinical pediatric dietician, and the leader of the Food Pharmacy Program. Their passion for improving the treatment of children embodies the advocacy work of Children’s National; below are some of their thoughts on why hospital advocacy is so impactful.

Our Team: Why is the Children’s Health Advocacy Institute’s (CHAI) work important?

Gina Dwyer: To me, it is important because doctors, nurses; they treat patients as they come in through the clinics and the emergency department. But it should not stop there, right? We need to be able to implement and change policies for the benefit of children. And when you do that, you affect all children, making their lives better, whether they come into the hospital or not.

Emily Frymark: I see a lot of food insecurity and food insufficiency in my patient population. So that’s why my coworkers started the Food Pharmacy. With the implementation of the Food Pharmacy program, we now screen all our patients that come into the Diabetes Care Complex Center for food insecurity. Without the Food Pharmacy, I could only do so much to help food insecure patients; leading them to what is available in their community. That is what got me involved in CHAI and the Healthy Food Working Group. I want to help advocate and see how we can put all of our expertise together to help these families in our community and increase access to healthy food.

Our Team: What is the impact of hospital-run preventative medicine food programs?

Emily Frymark: My team and I are providing patients that screen positive for food insecurity access to healthy food, which can encourage behavior change towards a healthier lifestyle at home. Making lifestyle changes is hard, but can improve outcomes for many chronic illness and disease states. With the increased access, and education, we are helping our patients create healthy balanced meals at home and take a step towards that change.

Our Team: Why is child advocacy so crucial in these neighborhoods that have clear health disparities, i.e. Prince George’s County, Wards seven and eight?

Gina Dwyer: I grew up in Prince George’s County. I’ve been here almost my whole life. But where I live in Prince George’s County is very different from inside the Beltway, where opportunity levels drop. You see it when you drive through; the neighborhoods change, things look very different, and the crime is very high. There is a split between where wealthy residents live and where people are living below the poverty level. And you’re just going, why is this the way it is and what can we do about it? I’m sure this is not going to change overnight, it will be a slow process, but at least these trends give us tangible evidence. The Child Opportunity Index has been used, tested, and shows the disparities in opportunity for these communities. Because now we understand some of these big things impacting opportunity, we can use it to make things better.

For me personally, I have a daughter with multiple disabilities. And a lot of the advocacy that has gone on up to her, implemented decades ago with the Individuals with Disability and Education Act, has paved the way for her to go to school. In the past, she would not have been able to attend school. So, you think about all the advocacy we are doing today that will help decades in the future. So, as I said, neighborhoods are not going to change overnight. But if we start understanding how to improve them, I think they will; they will change, and the kids will hopefully be healthier.

Due to Children’s National’s diligent work, hundreds of families have benefited from the food pharmacy program. The work of these two individuals and the CHAI team has had and will continue to have incredible lasting impacts on the children in those low-opportunity neighborhoods. Points they have brought up, such as improving access and the long-term benefits of policy change, are vital to the advocacy programs of the hospital; as Gina Dwyer mentions earlier in her interview:

All the advocacy that we’re doing today will help decades in the future. Kids that will never know, will never see, but will benefit from the policies we’re putting in place today.

This goes to show how hospital advocacy and preventative healthcare programs can have the power to improve public health. Children’s National is paving the way in preventative medicine, showing the healthcare industry that advocacy is as valuable as curative care.

This is only a fraction of the fantastic work the CHAI team does daily; a great way to learn more about their work is skimming the many post on this blog site!

* These interviews have been adapted for clarity and length. 

Header photo from Canva (SDI Productions from Getty Images Signature)

About the author

Atlantis Fellows (Healthy Food Group)

Tania R. Brand, Henry Jan, Shama Nathan and Maggie Tisher