Opinion: Healthy Beginnings a daring experiment that works

By Susan H. France

Doctors can be scary. This is true for anyone, but more so for some.

Imagine you are a low-income single mom with small children. You have a past filled with disappointment and disruption, bad luck and bad choices. You may have been mistreated very possibly abused. You have untreated health issues that you try to ignore. Your infrequent encounters with authority have not gone well. You have learned to keep your head down.

Now at Warren Village, a community of single-parent families working to together to become self-sufficient through school, work and community service, you want things to be different. You dont yet know what that means for you, but you are clear that you want your children to be safe, happy and healthy.

Your children, however, are not so healthy. They have the usual childhood diseases compounded by years of uncertainty, poor nutrition and moving around. They also have the usual behavioral issues and then some.

You know you need medical help but your only experience has been at the emergency room. You know that is not what you want or need.

This was a common situation at Warren Village when I was executive director. At best, our approach to childrens health needs was a well-intentioned but scatter-shot effort to address a wide range of acute conditions and a few severe chronic illnesses.

Until 1998.

That was when Laura, a third-year CU medical student, came into my office and proposed that she start a childrens health clinic at Warren Village. The clinic would be designed to prevent illness as well as to treat it. It would be a clinic to teach moms and dads how to partner with medical professionals and how best to use precious and costly medical resources.

Here was Lauras plan: She would recruit fellow medical students who would volunteer evening time on a weekly basis. She would obtain free supplies ranging from tongue-depressors to vaccines. She would convert preschool classrooms into exam rooms. She would develop an appointment and follow-up system and coordinate these with Warren Village counselors. She would not need any money from Warren Village. Oh, and she would recruit experienced attending physicians to supervise the medical students each and every week.

As I remember, my initial response came in equal doses of: That is crazy. This could be fabulous. And, of course, Who would be liable?

It took a little time for the administrators to figure out the legalities, but little time at all for the medical students to line up the necessary resources.

At 6 on a winter Wednesday evening, a team of medical students arrived at the Warren Village Learning Center. (We dubbed them baby docs and the pun was intended.) In short order, they converted a small and windowless classroom into two child-friendly exam rooms.

Curtains were hooked into ceiling tiles and portable exam tables rolled into place. Four chairs in the hall, plus a few books and toys, became the waiting room. Dr. Stephen Berman, mentor to these exceptional medical students, was appropriately the clinics first attending. Promptly at 6:30, the first patient family arrived for their appointment. Healthy Beginnings at Warren Village became real.

Sixteen years later, the Healthy Beginnings clinic still thrives. Some things have changed: exam rooms have been updated, health data digitized, the clinic experience incorporated into the CU medical schools pediatric rotation.

But the basics remain. This weekly clinic remains a magical blend of medical students and doctors volunteering their time and low-income moms working to keep their children safe, happy and healthy.

The magic comes from their learning together. The parents learn to trust doctors and connect with them as partners and allies. The medical students learn to hear – often through hushed and halting voices the eagerness of vulnerable young parents who are determined to care well for their children.

Ive often thought that some of the magic is because the medical students are just about as nervous as the single parents. For many of the baby docs, the Warren Village residents are their first real patients the first they see with their preceptors on the other side of the curtain.

Perhaps shared learning happens best when each learner is willing to be just a little vulnerable.

Susan H. France is vice president of programs for the Bonfils Stanton Foundation. She was executive director of Warren Village when Health Beginnings began.

Opinions communicated in Solutions represent the view of individual authors, and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.