Infant mortality is an important piece of the larger picture when determining the health of a community, and Spectrum Health’s Strong Beginnings program is helping one county in Michigan create a positive picture.

The largely African-American population in Kent County had an exceptionally high infant mortality rate: 22.4 deaths per 1,000 live births, the highest black infant mortality rate of any municipality in the state in 2003. The findings from the county’s Fetal Infant Mortality Review along with the 15 founding members of the Healthy Kent Infant Health Team, a community health organization, spurred the formation of Strong Beginnings, Spectrum’s program that focuses on maternal-infant healthwhile establishing a healthy family unit.

“The whole idea of this program is to help children grow up healthy and become productive members of the community,” says John Mosley, executive vice president of Spectrum Health.

That’s done through eight key community partnerships, a curriculum tailor-made to the needs of residents and a staff of dedicated community health workers. Those health workers serve as a bridge between the community and service providers, and are made up of staff and trained workers from the community and are accompanied by medical social workers and registered nurses. Most are from the Grand Rapids community, and many were previously involved with Strong Beginnings as clients. These are the ground troops who meet face-to-face in the homes of those in need — and that makes all the difference.

“I hear stories about how our team members have become part of a family that our clients did not have. They want to make a difference in how they’re raising their kids compared with how they were raised,” says Ken Fawcett, M.D., vice president of Healthier Communities, the parent organization for Strong Beginnings.

A unique subgroup within Strong Beginnings is the Strong Fathers program. According to the most recent data, of the 4,202 women served by Strong Beginnings, 92 percent were single, 18 percent were teenagers, and more than half of that total had no support from the children’s fathers. The Grand Rapids African American Health Institute oversees the program that reaches out to fathers, offering an effective black parenting course and 24/7 dad discussion groups, and reinforces the importance of a father figure in child development.

Creating a program targeting community needs required town hall meetings and interviews with more than 350 residents and potential clients — most of whom are the most at risk for poor perinatal outcomes and are reluctant to seek care for a variety of reasons. This is a community-focused, data-driven approach, says Mosley.

“If you’re not in the community and you’re expecting individuals to come to you and seek out care, that’s probably not going to happen in the way you want it to. It takes a community to come together to get these kinds of results.”

And those results have been encouraging. The black infant mortality rate has dropped to 14.9 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to the most recent data from 2011 to 2013. Additionally, 74 percent of women received first-trimester prenatal care, and 85 percent completed a postpartum exam within eight weeks of delivery. And, the numbers are up for women and children who have primary care providers.

“Mothers in our programs have higher rates of mental health issues, substance abuse and spousal abuse compared with average populations. If we know we have been able to successfully improve birth outcomes in that category, we know we have a model that can be successful with other special-needs populations,” says Fawcett. 

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A subgroup of Spectrum Health's Strong Beginnings program is Strong Fathers, which reinforces the importance of father figures in child development.

About the Award

Each year, the American Hospital Association honors up to five programs led by AHA member hospitals as “bright stars of the health care field” with the AHA NOVA Award. Winners are recognized for improving community health by looking beyond patients’ physical ailments, rooting out the economic and social barriers to care and collaborating with other community stakeholders. The AHA NOVA Award is directed and staffed by the AHA's Office of the Secretary.  Visit www.aha.org/nova for more information.