On the second Sunday of each month, the Orange County Great Park in Irvine looks like a county fair. Balloons and banners; families with kids in strollers; mobile trucks holding eye catching displays with greeters inviting families in.
But instead of deep fried cookies and moon bounce rides, families can dip into healthy snacks, discuss parenting concerns with doctors and nurses, get a flu shot, sign up for health insurance and other benefits, have their teeth checked and take home free fruits and vegetables. And this fair doesn’t leave out the rides. Some Sundays include a bike repair station and free booster seats for toddlers and kids.
This is Clinic in the Park, a five year old innovation that brings health care and prevention education to under-served families in Orange County each month.
“We reach out to under-served children and families with vital health services that they don’t otherwise have access to,” says Phyllis Agran, MD, MPH, a professor of medicine at UC Irvine, a practicing pediatrician and the founder and director of Clinic in the Park.
Agran said she conceived of Clinic in the Park because she was frustrated and alarmed by the too-short visits she had with her young patients and their parents that gave her little opportunity to discuss prevention, such as dental care; and healthy living, such as exercise and healthy eating; and child safety.
Funding for the project comes from several sources, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the American Academy of Pediatrics and its Orange County chapter and private and foundation donations. The goals of Clinic in the Park are connect, screen and educate, says Agran. “We connect children to health services, public benefits, and resources; we provide safety net screenings and deliver health education.”
The Sunday clinics also rely on the manpower and resources from more than fifty nonprofit community organizations such as Safe Kids Orange County and Healthy Smiles for Kids OC. A few months ago, Ria Berger, executive director of Healthy Smiles OC, was in a mobile unit at Clinic in the Park and asked a young boy how often he brushed his teeth. “I don’t own a toothbrush,” he told Berger, and added that neither did his siblings. Berger says they gave the family toothbrushes and toothpaste and showed them how to use them and because Healthy Smiles also visits the kids’ school, they were able to follow up to make sure the kids keep brushing. “When you think of the work of Clinic in the Park, that’s as fundamental as it gets,” says Berger.
At the Sunday clinics, the Healthy Smiles mobile unit is parked alongside other health partners to show parents that oral health awareness should be seen side by side with physical health.
Healthy Smiles hopes to one day have teledentistry units at the Sunday clinics that would let a hygienist, supervised by a dentist via computer, provide actual dental care in addition to screenings, cleanings and education. Berger says that while Healthy Smiles goes to schools throughout the county, “information on how to brush teeth and where to find dental care for free or low cost often stays in a child’s backpack. At Clinic in the Park we can include parents in care demonstrations and information.”
For the second year now, the Marjorie Veeh Elementary School in Tustin is involved with Clinic in the Park. They’ve received funds to rent a bus that brought families to Great Park and will again this year, and in March the clinic came to them during a school carnival. “Feedback has been very positive, says Principal Ryan Bollenbach. “For example, we’ve been able to get families booster seats and bike helmets they weren’t able to afford themselves.”
Other services include free books to help parents read with their kids and referrals to food pantries. A survey the clinic conducted found a high rate of food insecurity among clinic attendees, often because many families include undocumented immigrants and are not eligible for, or are afraid to sign up for, SNAP (food stamp) benefits.
Child safety is a key focus of the clinics. “Every month at the clinic we talk about safety such as safe cribs, infant crying and what it means and how to soothe a child,” says pediatrician Sandra Murray, MD, a professor of pediatrics at UC Irvine and a member of the Clinic in the Park executive team who runs the Keep Kids Safe Stations. Dr. Murray says that because the clinics attract the full range of family members such as parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins who babysit, the people who stop by “are the very ones we want to talk to.”
Much of the safety information is often new, such as learning that nothing should be in the crib, but the baby. No stuffed animals, no bumpers. “In Orange County, we have about a dozen babies die every year because of unsafe sleep and at the clinics we’ve heard about such deaths,” says Dr. Murray, who adds that knowing how to help a crying baby is a critical topic because crying is the number one reason babies get injured. “We focus on crying because we want to prevent abuse,” says Dr. Murray. Clinic staff hands out posters on how to soothe and discuss how to help a baby stop crying and recognize that sometimes the baby just has to cry it out.
Other safety issues families find at the safety stations include quick CPR training, not leaving a baby in a hot car and pool safety. Murray adds that since families are usually not feeling stressed for time on a Sunday, they often ask “random questions” like concerns about measles during last year’s outbreak, or where to get free or low cost health care for undocumented immigrants who are often afraid to sign up for benefits. Staff have brochures on hand for clinics that will gladly see undocumented immigrants.
To reach as many people as possible, Clinic in the Park advertises over social media, through flyers at schools and clinics and in neighborhood supermarkets. With more funding, Agran would like to develop a text messaging option that would let parents directly connect with services such as food pantries, add more clinics across the county and state and purchase a mobile unit for Clinic in the Park’s materials so they could just “hop in the van and set up shop at street fairs and carnivals.
Says Agran: “our broader vision is to make sure children and their families are connected to community resources, receive all screenings and repeated doses of health education to optimize the health and academic opportunities and keep them out of poverty.”