Today, Pebbles of Hope launches its first podcast series, Bridging the Gap, in which we explore the health disparities that affect NICU families. Each episode features an interview with a preemie parent, healthcare professional, or other relevant expert for a candid one-on-one conversation on some of the most pressing issues faced by parents in underserved communities navigating the journey of prematurity. The series is hosted by our Executive Director, Cheryl Chotrani, and in our first episode, she sat down with Dr. Bonita Wilson, a pediatric allergist and Pebbles of Hope board member, to discuss what it means to be underserved in the NICU. A condensed version of our conversation is below.
Please tell us about your career path as a physician and specifically highlight any experience working with underserved communities.
Dr. Wilson: I began my medical education at Howard University where I earned my medical degree. From there, I went to Boston and trained at Boston City Hospital doing pediatrics. I later served as Chief Resident at DC General Hospital in Washington, DC and completed my allergy fellowship at Howard University. So, I’ve had quite a bit of opportunity to work with underserved communities in the city. During my fellowship, I set up allergy clinics in the Caribbean and had an opportunity to work in underserved areas in the Caribbean as well.
How do you define underserved populations? Does that simply mean “low-income” or are their other definitions or reasons for being underserved?
Dr. Wilson: A community can be classified as underserved if they do not have access to the optimal resources available for whatever medical condition they need to be treated for. It can be due to geographical isolation which may affect families that do not live in close proximity to a well-equipped hospital. Or, it can be related to lack of access to health insurance, which may prevent individuals from seeking medical care. And it can also relate to communities that are low-income, in which the population may not be able to afford the financial cost of adequate care. An individual can live in a location with multiple hospitals, but if the only hospital accessible to them is not well-equipped to adequately address their medical needs, they would be considered underserved.
What does being underserved mean for a community and how specifically does it affect NICU families?
Dr. Wilson: As part of my work with Pebbles of Hope, I’ve had the opportunity to work with hospitals across the country in all different areas. Hospitals that have neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) to treat premature babies and other babies that require intensive care are classified according to the level of care they are equipped to provide. Level IV is the highest level, which would mean that particular hospital is equipped to care for the sickest babies in their area. In the entire state of Mississippi, there is only one Level IV NICU. Consequently, when very early premature babies are delivered, they are typically transported to this one Level IV NICU from all over the state. So, this NICU ends up serving three to four times the number of babies that they would be reasonably equipped to serve, which results in overcrowding and understaffing. So, even at a hospital with a high degree of resources available, they are not always able to provide the complete educational support that patients and families may need in a timely manner. Mississippi is not the only state in this country that has only one or a limited number of Level IV NICUs, so this is an issue that affects multiple populations in the US.
How can organizations like Pebbles of Hope or other non-profits tackle some of these disparities and help bridge the gap?
Dr. Wilson: No one organization will be able to completely solve this problem, but what we can do is help provide a means to educate NICU parents and to make that education available throughout the country and to communities in other parts of the world. We can make them aware of the resources that are available in their area and give them advice on the things that they can do to improve their health as well as the health of their babies. Education is critically important because parents, regardless of where they live or where they’re from, generally have a common goal of making sure their babies are healthy and well cared for, and education empowers parents with the knowledge and tools for them to take an active role in furthering the health and development of their children in an effective way.
Can you talk about some of the work you’ve done with Pebbles of Hope that you think is helpful in addressing the needs of underserved communities?
Dr. Wilson: I am particularly excited to talk about Pebbles of Hope’s Adopt a Family program in which we are matched with parents of premature babies that have been identified as having low income status. We receive in-kind donations from Buy Buy Baby and other donors and provide supplies to these families to help them prepare for bringing their babies home from the NICU. We are able to give them things like cribs, car seats, bottles, clothing and breast pumps and it can make a huge difference in providing them with hope and enabling them to provide the care their babies need when they get home. We also provide these families with mentoring and access to all of our educational resources. Some of the people we’ve served through this program have recently immigrated to this country with nothing, or they are low-income and don’t have the means to purchase these supplies themselves. So, I am thrilled to be able to participate in this program and to give these families something to help them with their babies.
The full audio copy of this episode as well as all other episodes of the Bridging the Gap podcast is available on iTunes, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.