Akron Children's Hospital recently completed its fourth community health needs assessment (CHNA) to examine the issues affecting the health of children within its service areas, gauge the impact of recent efforts and identify gaps in care.

The process has identified three pediatric health priorities to address between 2020-2022: 1) improving access to mental health services and recognizing the impact of adverse childhood experiences, 2) high infant mortality rates throughout Akron Children's service area, particularly in communities of color, and 3) identifying children with asthma and making sure they have access to education and treatment to prevent ER visits and hospitalizations.

"Based on a careful analysis of this data, we will refine existing strategies and also look for new avenues to address the unmet needs of children within communities we serve," said Bernett L. Williams, vice president for External Affairs for Akron Children's. "This process gives us roadmap we will follow to ensure we remain focused, collaborative, and outcomes driven."

The Greater Akron portion of the assessment covered Summit, Stark, Portage, Ashland, Richland, Medina, and Wayne counties.

The Mahoning Valley portion of the assessment covered Mahoning, Trumbull, and Columbiana counties.

Working with the Center for Community Solutions, Akron Children's CHNA process reviewed data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Ohio Department of Health, Ohio Hospital Association, the Ohio Medicaid Assessment Survey, and other sources.

Also, interviews were conducted with community leaders, and parents and caregivers participated in focus group discussions.

While the prioritized health needs of both the Greater Akron and Mahoning Valley assessments are the same, the communities may use different approaches in achieving their goals. Here's a closer look at the concerns:

Mental Health and Trauma: Parents and caregivers in focus groups repeatedly expressed concern about the trauma experienced by children in their communities as a result of family dynamics, domestic violence, abuse and neglect, parental drug use, and parental incarceration.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can impact a child even into adulthood, affecting long-term mental and physical health, school success, employment, and relationships.

The assessment found a high level of interest in improving care coordination and access to mental and behavioral health services, including reducing barriers to care and identifying children who may need these services at younger ages.

Infant Mortality: Newborn babies in Ohio die before their first birthday at a rate well above the national average. In half of the counties assessed as part of the CHNA, outcomes are even worse than Ohio's already low benchmark.

Twice as many babies in Ohio die during their first 27 days of life as in the post-natal period.

Many of these are born too early, too small, or with other life-threatening health complications, and compared to the overall population, black women who are pregnant are more likely than non-Hispanic, white women to receive prenatal care late in their pregnancies or not at all.

Community leaders interviewed for the assessment discussed successful programs and the need for collaboration across many organizations to tackle this complex issue.

Successful strategies in reducing infant mortality include safe sleep and smoking cessation programs, centering groups, father involvement, maternal depression screening and support, crib giveaways, and education focused on empowering pregnant women, birth spacing, and birth control.

"There is widespread agreement that addressing the racial disparities in infant mortality is a top concern," said Williams. "A desire exists among leaders involved in this work to help the wider community understand that infant mortality is a systemic issue tied to poverty and racism and, building from research, should be addressed as such."

Asthma and Respiratory Care: Asthma and respiratory distress are among the most common reasons for visits to the hospital emergency department or urgent care.

Symptoms can vary significantly from mild difficulty breathing to life-threatening flare-ups.

Akron is one of the 20 "Asthma Capitals of the United States" and is part of the Ohio Valley Asthma Belt, as identified by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

Akron Children's will continue efforts to identify children with asthma, making sure they are connected with primary care and specialists in pediatric pulmonology, have access to medication, and are adhering to treatment plans.

Proactive measures have been proven to reduce ER visits and hospitalizations.

Other efforts focus on education and collaborating with community agencies to reduce environmental triggers in the home, such as pet dander, mold, dust mites, and cigarette smoke.

"We are grateful to all those who participated in this process and shared valuable insights about the health and well being of children in our community," said Williams. "We are energized and committed to tackling these issues and giving all children the best opportunities to thrive and reach their full potential."

To read the complete Community Health Needs Assessments for Greater Akron and the Mahoning Valley, click here.