Child obesity worsens in Tennessee

(MCT) – The state of children's health in the tri-state region can usually be found at the bottom of national health rankings lists.
Mar 2, 2014

(MCT) – The state of children's health in the tri-state region can usually be found at the bottom of national health rankings lists.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week heralded a nationwide drop in preschool-age obesity rates, Tennessee is one of three states where the problem actually has worsened in the last several years.

One in three children in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama is overweight. And data collected on low-income children ages 2 to 5 in Hamilton County found that that more than 35 percent are at risk for becoming overweight.

Among children with asthma, Alabama and Tennessee are tied for worst in the country, with one in eight children afflicted. The two states also are among the 10 worst for low-birth-weight infants.

And infant mortality rates in parts Chattanooga are worse than in developing countries like Panama and Romania.

The Pediatric Healthcare Improvement Coalition of the Tennessee Valley, comprised of a group of doctors and community leaders from around the region, is trying to form a regional command center of sorts in the fight obesity, asthma, mental health problems and infant mortality.

This week, they hope a series of forums across the region will spark others to take up their cause.

The coalition was started in 2012 by a two doctors weary of those rankings.

Dr. Allen Coffman, a pediatrician at Highland Pediatrics, and Dr. Alan Kohrt, the CEO of T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger, grew especially frustrated as they attended in a conference in New Orleans in 2011, sitting in on a session about health and preschool readiness.

Chattanooga, it turned out, was one of the 13 cities nationwide that a group of researchers had examined for the study.

And the findings weren't pretty. The study revealed that a quarter of all children from Chattanooga's Southside are not ready for kindergarten because of physical, health-related problems.

That was news to the two doctors -- a fact that bothered them.

"Here we are, both very active in the community and in children's health, and neither of us knew that this study had happened," recalls Coffman. "It drove home the fact that we need to get better organized."

The two resolved that there needed to be a battle plan to fight against the region's grim child health statistics.

Plenty of Chattanooga groups were focused on different areas of children's health, but they weren't communicating well with each other.

Coalitions and task forces would spark from time to time, but efforts often waxed and waned with grant money.

There weren't good maps of where the key problems were. There weren't overarching strategies.

"We were trying to empty the Tennessee River a spoonful at a time. One patient interaction at a time was not moving the needle in any of these things," said Coffman.

Kohrt has long advocated for a new children's hospital. But that alone, he says, will not be enough to turn the tide.

"If we're not working with the community to address some of these issues in a different manner, we'll have a nice new building, but we won't change the health of our kids," Kohrt said.

The coalition wants to be a fixture in the community -- a long-term instigator and yardstick for community progress. They've sought and secured funding from a variety of local foundations.

The group's first step has been to map the city's health issues. In certain neighborhoods like Southside and East Chattanooga, teen obesity numbers spike higher than the county averages.

The coalition has partnered with Blue Cottage Consulting, a Michigan-based firm that will handle data-collection and run the forums nest week.

"When you drill down into some of the neighborhoods -- the numbers start to get even worse," said Coffman. "We don't have unlimited resources, so we need to target the areas where those are most significant."

Now the group wants to get an even closer picture of the problems and solutions: The family level.

"We can talk academics and community strategy all we want, but unless the families that are involved in these issues buy in, then it's just a waste of time. That's been our philosophy," Kohrt said

Overcoming such huge health barriers can't be done without serious attention to public policy, education and attention to issues like income, insurance access and public safety, said Ken Chilton, assistant professor of public policy at Tennessee State University.

"Socioeconomic status is highly correlated with test results, highly correlated with negative health, and highly correlated with violence," he said.

Despite deep systemic problems, it's not all hopeless, Chilton said.

"Chattanooga has an epic and well-capitalized philanthropic community that can really be put to bear on this issue. I think you've seen the issue when they've focused, for example, on downtown revitalization. Could we focus on health revitalization?"

The coalition is set on starting efforts at the grassroots level. Within the next five years, the Kohrt said he wants to see neighborhoods with their own maternal and child health community board.

Even people without kids need to prioritize pediatric health, the doctors stress: Healthy kids make for good learners. Good learners make for a strong workforce. That helps the city and the state get ahead.

And tri-state children, they say, deserve to get ahead on some lists.

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