BMH pediatrician receives Healthy Steps grant

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Beaufort Memorial pediatrician Dr. James Simmons has received a $273,000 grant from Children’s Trust of South Carolina to launch Healthy Steps, a national initiative designed to improve the health and development of children from birth to age three.

Dr. James Simmons, MD
Dr. James Simmons, MD

The early-intervention program uses developmental screenings and home visitations by trained specialists to help identify and address issues that could affect the physical, emotional and intellectual growth of at-risk children. Simmons, of All Children’s Pediatrics in Port Royal, will team up with physicians from Beaufort Pediatrics and Beaufort Jasper Hampton Comprehensive Health Services (BJHCHS) to initiate the Healthy
Steps program.

“Home visitation is proven to be a very effective tool in assessing psychosocial issues that can hinder the optimal growth and development of children,” said Simmons, a physician in Beaufort for 15 years. “Sometimes parents will talk more openly about their problems in a home setting than at the doctor’s office.”

Issues affecting children could include substance abuse by a parent, domestic violence and maternal depression. The evaluation also will target obesity. South Carolina ranks second in the country for obesity in children ages 10 to 17.

The 14 pediatricians in the three practices will be trained to spot potential issues during well-child check-ups with their young patients. Parents of children referred to the voluntary program will meet with a developmental specialist in the doctor’s office for an initial screening. The specialist will then follow up with a home visit.

“Far too many children have emotional, physical or psychological issues that can be traced back to their youth,” said Dr. Kurt Ellenberger, of Beaufort Pediatrics. “Parents want to do the right thing, but they may have difficulty coping with their problems. They’re unaware of the resources in the community that can help them.” During home visits, the Healthy Steps specialists will look for possible adult risk factors that affect child behavior and development. Once the issues have been identified, the specialist will consult with the
referring pediatrician.

“They’re helping us get an eye inside the home so we can determine what needs to be done to affect a change,” Simmons said. “If they see kitchen cabinets full of cookies and chips, we may refer the parent to a nutritionist at Beaufort Memorial’s LifeFit Wellness Center or one of the resources at the Medical University of South Carolina.”

Obesity among young children, even infants, is of particular concern in the Lowcountry. In his practice, Simmons said, he is seeing an increasing number of children developing Type 2 diabetes, once called adult-onset diabetes. Being overweight is one of the primary risk factors for the disease.

“The earlier we can catch problems,” Simmons said, “the easier it is to modify bad habits.”

Along with the developmental screenings and home visitations, Healthy Steps also offers:

•  Well-child visits with a clinician and Healthy Steps specialist

•  Child development and family health check-ups

•  Written materials on topics such as toilet training, discipline and nutrition

•  Referrals for services, including speech or hearing specialists for children and depression counseling for mothers.

The $273,000 grant provides funding to serve 175 families in Beaufort and Jasper counties. Simmons said he can apply for more money if he determines there is a greater need. Recently, the core team spearheading the Beaufort Healthy Steps initiative met in Greenville to receive training on the program. Over the next several weeks, they will provide instruction to the participating pediatricians on the referral process.

“Families face so many challenges,” said Dr. Faith Polkey, BJHCHS pediatric service chief. “This program provides them with that little extra support they need.”