Why doctors are prescribing books to children in Holland

Dr. Kurt Lindberg has found that his patients who struggle the most to bring their chronic diseases under control often had a tough start in life.

That conclusion is backed by research, which shows abuse, neglect, and other traumatic experiences during childhood can impact people throughout their lives. This suffering is linked to a variety of health issues, including heart disease, depression, obesity, and substance abuse.

Dr. Kurt LindbergIt’s one reason Lindberg has become a big advocate of early childhood intervention. 

“We are trained in medical school to treat disease, but we need to start changing our focus to be more proactive. Part of that is helping kids engage with school and, eventually, a career, because the data shows this makes a big difference in how well they take care of themselves and how well they become productive members of society,” he says.

The family physician is the president and medical director of the Holland Physician Hospital Organization, a collaboration between Holland Hospital and the 180 physicians who are based there. For six years, Lindberg has partnered with Ready for School in linking early literacy and health.

Lakewood Family Medicine, one of the area’s largest practices, where Lindberg is a partner, has given out thousands of books to parents to encourage them to read to their kids.

Collaborating with doctors made sense because parents trust their medical providers, says Dr. Donna Lowry, CEO of Ready for School. She brought the program, called Reach Out and Read, to the Holland area after seeing its success in other parts of the country. It has proven to be an effective way to connect with families before children show up in preschool or primary school.

She says that, even for parents who struggle with literacy themselves, the book becomes a tool that is more about modeling connection and experience than it is about reading.

“Talking about the pictures and turning pages together is a source of empowerment that builds brains and bonding,” Lowry says. “Books are useful to model what it looks like to talk about the story that the pictures tell without having to read the words. As they enjoy books and time spent together, families form lasting connections and children learn new skills.”

The books are handed out to children at every checkup, from 6 months old until they reach school age. Provided through Ready for School, each of the nine books is specific to a particular age group and available in Spanish and English.

The success of the program – which was part of an effort to raise school readiness to 70% in 2019 – shows what can happen when the educational and medical systems work together to support young children. Fortunately, Lowry’s medical credentials make her an ideal bridge between these communities.

“I think her being a physician gives her a better understanding of what it is that we do as physicians, and also a lot more clout when she gives her opinions and begins a program like this,” Lindberg says. 

He says both families and physicians have been receptive to the program.

“We live in a region that has a lot of income diversity. There are some people who you give a book to and they have plenty of books at home, so you wonder if this is making a difference. You also have those interactions where you have a teenage mother with no support system. There aren’t any other books at home, so you're giving something that could change this child's life,” Lindberg says.

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.