Fairview doctors prescribe frequent doses of reading

by Jim Boyle

Fairview Clinic doctors in Elk River, Rogers and Zimmerman have a new tool in their medical bag.

They are issuing prescriptions for children six months old to 5 years to have their parents read to them, and to make it easier they are giving away free books.

This year it’s expected doctors at 38 Fairview Clinics will give away 40,000 books to make their involvement in the Reach Out and Read (ROR) program a success.

Dr. Sara Franwick of Fairview Clinic in Rogers read to Hallie Albrecht during a recent visit to the medical clinic.

“It’s a great program,” said Dr. Sara Frankwick. “The kids like it and it’s a great way to talk about their favorite books and when they read at home.”

Reach Out and Read is an evidence-based nonprofit organization that promotes early literacy and school readiness in pediatric exam rooms nationwide by giving new books to children and advice to parents about the importance of reading aloud.

The trick is figuring out the funding piece, according to Lynne Burke, the statewide coordinator of Reach Out and Read.

Funding has been available for disadvantaged areas, but in places like Rogers where families are more affluent, the support has come from Fairview employees — ranging from doctors and nurses to those who work at the front desk of the clinics.

ROR looks at the demographics, economics and information about the schools in deciding funding decisions, but the federal government has cut the program’s funding in recent years.

Shelby Homberger, 6, read to Hallie Albrecht, 1.5, at the Fairview Clinic in Rogers on Wednesday of this week in a specially designed enclosed waiting/reading area. Photo by Jim Boyle

Fairview has been rolling out the program at its clinics over a period of years. Elk River was a recent addition, and Rogers and Zimmerman also are stocked up and offering the program. The program is a standard part of care at Fairview clinics now.

“Reach Out and Read builds on the unique relationship between parents and medical providers to develop critical early reading skills in children, beginning at six months of age,” the ROR website states.

There are more than 3.9 million families served annually by the national program. When children and parents regularly read together, their children are proven to enter kindergarten better prepared to succeed, with larger vocabularies, stronger language skills and a six-month development edge over their peers.

About 50 percent of children who enter kindergarten in Minnesota are considered unprepared. As the baby boom generation moves through the retirement years and the childhood population shrinks, the situation is expected to become more problematic.

Doctors at Fairview Clinics in Elk River, Rogers and Zimmerman use this to prescribe reading.

Poor children hear 30 million fewer words before starting school than an affluent child.

“We’re leveraging the status of doctors and taking advantage of the intimate setting they have in a doctor’s office while examining a child and talking to a parent,” Burke said.

Fairview will have representatives at Wednesday’s Elk River Area Early Childhood  Coalition Early Education Summit. One hope that Burke has  have is to see the program spread across the area to include all clinics in the Elk River area.

“It’s an inexpensive program, but the long term payoff will be immense,” Burke says. “It puts parents on development surveillance notice to watch for important milestones.”

Children  at Fairview and other clinics around the country will get about 10 books between their first appointment at six months and their 5-year checkup. The books, because so many are being purchased, only cost between $1 and $2, so when the Rush City Fire Department gave $500, more than $250 books were purchased.

Lions clubs and community members have contributed to the program, too.

“Some of the doctors are even asked for their autographs,” said Julie Abear, Fairview’s Reach Out and Read coordinator. “Some of the children think the doctors have written the books. That’s OK. Whatever moves them to read, share books and connect these families is worthwhile.” (See related story)

The doctors like it because they have an easy way to track a child’s development.

Fairview is also adding a service so patients and their families can access information about early childhood programming from communities across the state.

“Everybody’s so busy today, but it’s such a rewarding experience to sit down with a child and read,” Abear said.

Burke applauds Fairview for its proactive approach and their creativity in figuring out the funding component.