Vanderbilt research hub to examine issues faced by children at risk for poor health, education outcomes

November 15, 2018

By Joan Brasher and Jill Clendening

 

Experts from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s Department of Health Policy and Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development are joining efforts to establish a Policies for Action (P4A) Research Hub at Vanderbilt to better understand and develop recommendations to address the needs of some of Tennessee’s most vulnerable children, including children in immigrant families and children with prenatal exposure to opioids. 

The hub will be led by co-principal investigators Melinda Buntin, PhD, Mike Curb Professor and Chair of the Department of Health Policy at VUMC, and Carolyn Heinrich, PhD, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Public Policy, Education and Economics at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

It is funded by a $1.25 million, 2.5-year grant from Policies for Action (P4A), a signature research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the largest national philanthropy dedicated to public health. The program is administered through the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit research organization that provides insights and evidence to tackle the most complex social and economic challenges our country faces today. P4A Research Hubs build transdisciplinary research portfolios to inform and reform laws, policies and initiatives needed to improve population health, well-being and equity.

“It’s an honor to be chosen to establish a new Policies for Action Research Hub,” said Buntin. “At Vanderbilt, we are uniquely positioned for success. We can draw on talent from across the University and Medical Center and tap into a wealth of data sources to generate ideas for how we can more effectively serve children in low-resource households. Our hub will examine specific demographic groups where very little population-based research has been conducted, and we look forward to changing that.”

“Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center have a history of collaborative investigations that generate actionable evidence, and our goal is to illuminate levers for policy and program action that can be activated to improve health and education outcomes among children most at risk in our state,” said Heinrich. “This hub will break new ground by combining longitudinal, statewide health and education data and promoting cross-sector collaborations between health and education systems and research-practice partners to devise strategies to improve program access and services that promote child well-being. We’re ready to get to work.”

The P4A Research Hub at Vanderbilt will initially focus on two projects: investigating the long-term effects of early opioid exposure in children and determining how children of immigrants are accessing critical health, education and social services. These research emphases were driven by troubling statistics in Tennessee, where more than 22 percent of all children live in poverty; 36 percent of children with immigrant parents live in poverty; and the number of children born between 2001 and 2014 with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) increased 25-fold, Buntin said.

“These are populations that can clearly benefit from evidence-based, forward-thinking policies and programs. We aspire to provide ideas that can positively change the course of children’s lives, both in long-term health and in their ability to connect to resources they need to build a strong foundation for their adult lives,” she added.

The team will examine long-term health outcomes of opioid-exposed children, including incidence of developmental delays and special health care needs. The investigators will also explore whether county-level trends in the number of children with attendance and discipline problems as well as low test scores correlate with time periods when neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) was high in their counties. TennCare Medicaid data and educational data will be used to analyze differences in educational outcomes between children born with NAS and children not born with NAS. 

As for children of immigrant parents, past research has shown they are at greater risk for adverse health and educational outcomes. Since 2009, Tennessee has introduced more than 20 legislative actions related to eligibility verification for public program participation. 

“Beyond looking at the statistics, our team members will be interviewing representatives of state and local social service programs, as well as school personnel and nonprofit organizations that assist families in accessing programs to assist their children,” said Heinrich. “We want to provide the best information possible to policy makers and program administrators so that they have a better understanding of how access to, or the inability to access, services impacts these children and their families.” 

Since 2015, Policies for Action has awarded more than $15 million for research investigating how policies, laws, and other system and community levers in the public and private sectors can support RWJF’s vision of building a Culture of Health in this country.