How health systems can leverage strategic school partnerships to address pediatric behavioral health

Five ways health systems can build greater value in their communities

Core Health’s recently completed research study, “Parents in the Pandemic*,” unsurprisingly revealed a significant level of concern by parents about the mental, emotional and behavioral health of their children. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association joined forces last month to launch an advocacy campaign focused on bringing attention to this crisis by policymakers and legislators.

As Mark Wietecha, president and CEO of Children’s Hospital Association, wrote in an op-ed for U.S. News, pediatric healthcare providers are “seeing an unprecedented explosion in pediatric mental, emotional and behavioral health conditions. Kids and youth are in crisis … and are filling up emergency departments at children's hospitals across the country. These are desperate moments for families; all too often, their precious children cannot access the specialized support they need, and they have no place else to turn.”

With the elevated need for pediatric behavioral health services, and many organizations dealing with more demand than they can handle, how can existing or new partnerships with schools be leveraged?

Even when an organization has capacity constraints that limit its ability to drive volume, there are still opportunities to enhance reputation and provide valuable information to consumers looking for answers. One approach is leveraging (or creating) strategic partnerships that can provide direct access to shared audiences, build reputation, and provide meaningful service even when appointment availability is a long game.

That addresses a problem among those you serve and builds greater long-term value in your community.

As reported in Modern Healthcare, "top of mind for providers is how they can support the mental healthcare needs of students who have struggled to varying degrees through the pandemic.”

Dr. Roopa Thakur, a pediatrician and medical director of Cleveland Clinic Children’s school-based healthcare program, said she's “seeing mental health needs escalate very quickly,” with concerns about anxiety, depression and loneliness around COVID-19, as well as anxiety about returning to school. “We know that a lot of kids are flying under the radar as well, until things get bad enough that parents reach out to their (primary care physician).”

Michele Wilmoth, director of school health at Akron Children's, described ways the hospital worked with schools to help manage students’ care during the pandemic, from managing chronic illnesses such as asthma or diabetes to contract tracing and COVID testing/screening processes. Now, many pediatric providers are focused on getting parents back in the habit of bringing in their kids for preventative and well care. "We're doing well visits and immunizations, trying to get kids back connected," Wilmoth said. "There was such a gap for such a long time where we were all isolated, where kids were not seeking care in their traditional primary practice office. We're able to do some of that work right in the schools where we partner."

We’ve written about some of the reasons parents have delayed care (and are continuing to delay care) for their kids throughout the pandemic, and how to use this information to demonstrate empathy and understanding in messages and communications to parents.

In 2016, long before the pandemic, Children’s Hospitals Today wrote about the ways hospital-school partnerships benefit students and the community: strengthening the health care-education continuum to heightening brand awareness, helping with injury and illness prevention and allowing for convenient care. At the time, they reported on a 2015 survey that showed that 51% of respondents indicated their hospital had a "formal partnership" with early education or child care. And the Brookings Institution published a report titled, “Hospitals and Schools as Hubs for Building Healthy Communities” in late 2016. Many of these hospital-school partnerships have traditionally centered on sports medicine; now, these partnerships extend to primary care, behavioral health and more. It’s clear that schools and hospitals have the opportunity to partner together in both formal and informal ways to improve communication with parents and improve the health of children.

Recently, NPR aired a story that included the example of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital partnering with the Illinois Board of Education to provide virtual training to schools to increase mental health support to children.

Here are five ways pediatric healthcare marketers can leverage strategic partnerships with schools as they work to rebuild pediatric volumes:

1. Work with internal communications colleagues, community health teams and behavioral health partners to identify one or more spokesperson(s) with expertise in pediatric behavioral health.

  • Plan media training or media coaching sessions if you intend to put these individuals in front of media. This can even be helpful if you're presenting your spokespeople to groups at local schools, businesses or other organizations.
  • Provide key messaging to help condense, highlight and target the specific information they should convey, ensuring it's driven by what is most valuable for the audience.

2. Determine whether there are opportunities to pursue or respond to media or other group inquiries and speakers bureau needs.

  • Topics can include: how to talk about trauma, how to handle stressful situations, how to spot signs of distress in kids, the importance of resuming well-child visits, etc.
  • Think about how the brand is represented in these settings (will someone watching the video know who the expert represents?).

3. Consider all the audiences who might benefit from available resources, and how any strategic partnerships with schools or employers can be leveraged to communicate more broadly to those who need to know:

  • Parents
  • Teachers
  • School counselors
  • Social workers
  • Coaches

4. Provide meaningful and helpful information for parents in a number of ways:

  • Record video snippets (keep it brief and clear!) of tips that can be shared on social media channels or in group settings (PTA meetings, sports team meetings, etc.) for broad access. Keeping it concise, meaningful, relatable and actionable makes it more shareable.
  • Offer interviews with local media and school groups (parents, teachers, coaches), community youth groups.
  • Work with school partners to distribute and provide information to parents, teachers, counselors and coaches.
  • Encourage parents to be advocates for their children and provide mechanisms for them to express their concerns and get their questions answered.
  • Ensure providers have the resources they need to be able to provide guidance and support to parents.
  • Create recommendations for online tools and resources that parents can access and use.

5. Does your care delivery model integrate behavioral health specialists into pediatric primary care in partnership with schools?

Are navigators or health coaches available to guide parents through the resources that are available to them? Work with your school partners to let audiences know how the system is adapting to make mental, emotional and behavioral health care more accessible. This type of support can be a meaningful differentiator when presented as a solution to a pressing concern … as long as it's communicated with empathy.

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Parents in the Pandemic is a proprietary nationwide study of nearly 2,000 parents conducted by Core Health, offering healthcare marketers insight into parents’ mindsets and greatest concerns as health systems consider how to communicate with empathy and compassion.

Our new study on Parents in the Pandemic has been released. Sign up here to download the e-book.

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