Integrating the life course into MCH service delivery: from theory to practice

Carol Brady, Faye Johnson
Maternal and Child Health Journal 2014, 18 (2): 380-8
To describe the efforts of a community-based maternal and child health coalition to integrate the life course into its planning and programs, as well as implementation challenges and results of these activities. Jacksonville-Duval County has historically had infant mortality rates that are significantly higher than state and national rates, particularly among its African American population. In an effort to address this disparity, the Northeast Florida Healthy Start Coalition embraced the life course approach as a model. This model was adopted as a framework for (1) community needs assessment and planning; (2) delivery of direct services, including case management, education and support in the Magnolia Project, its federal Healthy Start program; (3) development of community collaborations, education and awareness; and, (4) advocacy and grass roots leadership development. Implementation experience as well as challenges in transforming traditional approaches to delivering maternal and child health services are described. Operationalizing the life course approach required the Coalition to think differently about risks, levels of intervention and the way services are organized and delivered. The organization set the stage by using the life course as a framework for its required local planning and needs assessments. Based on these assessments, the content of case management and other key services provided by our federal Healthy Start program was modified to address not only health behaviors but also underlying social determinants and community factors. Individual interventions were augmented with group activities to build interdependence among participants, increasing social capital. More meaningful inter-agency collaboration that moved beyond the usual referral relationships were developed to better address participants' needs. And finally, strategies to cultivate participant advocacy and community leadership skills, were implemented to promote social change at the neighborhood-level. Transforming traditional approaches to delivering maternal and child health services and sustaining change is a long and laborious process. The Coalition has taken the first steps; but its efforts are far from complete. Based on the agency's initial implementation experience, three areas presented particular challenges: staff, resources and evaluation. The life course is an important addition to the MCH toolbox. Community-based MCH programs should assess how a life course approach can be incorporated into existing programs to broaden their focus, and, potentially, their impact on health disparities and birth outcomes. Some areas to consider include planning and needs assessment, direct service delivery, inter-agency collaboration, and community leadership development. Continued disparities for people of color, despite medical advances, demand new interventions that purposefully address social inequities and promote advocacy among groups that bear a disproportionate burden of infant mortality. Successful transformation of current approaches requires investment in staff training to garner buy-in, flexible resources and the development of new metrics to measure the impact of the life course approach on individual and programmatic outcomes.

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