Top military family experts meet to discuss military child health

The Department of Defense has celebrated the Month of the Military Child every April since 1986 to highlight the resilience and resourcefulness of military kids in the face of significant stressors.

In the spirit of the month, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences hosted a virtual “Military Child Health Research Symposium” April 26 to bring together key DOD leaders, experts in pediatrics and child mental health and wellness, and representatives from military child advocacy organizations.

“As a pediatrician and someone who takes part in and leads military research programs, I think it’s really important to hear the voice of the people that we are intended to serve,” said Army Col. (Dr.) Patrick Hickey, USU’s Department of Pediatrics Chair and moderator for the event. “I really appreciate everyone coming together today to share their perspectives as people passionate about the welfare of military children, and to inform us about what they see as strengths in current programs, areas of improvement, and goals for the future.”

The event featured three panels, the first of which included representatives from the military health care system and several advocacy organizations. The first panel discussed current issues facing service-connected families and areas for further research. Frequent moves and deployments continue to be the most significant stressors for families; however, the panelists illustrated the role military physicians play in alleviating stress.

“Our uniformed pediatricians continue to be at the center of caring for these families,” said Army Col. (Dr.) Catherine Kimball-Eayrs, USU School of Medicine commandant of students and consultant to the U.S. Army Surgeon General for General Pediatrics. “Military physicians understand and relate to the challenges faced by service members and their families.”

The panelists also noted the importance of supporting military families with children with special medical needs, as frequent moves can be particularly stressful for them as a result of changing care teams.

“Pediatricians are really in tune with the needs of military families that have children with significant needs,” said Francesca Bjorklund, a military mom and military child health advocate at Walter Reed. “The biggest issue is how can [permanent change of station] cycles be looked at to help minimize moves? This is really important for all families, but especially for families with exceptional family members.”

While frequent moves are particularly stressful for these families, the military health care system trains 25% of the nation’s developmental pediatricians and is uniquely equipped to provide support, added Kimball-Eayrs.

“Continuity of care is number one, and the relationships between military health care providers can go a long way to ease the transition,” said Bjorklund. “When we moved, the doctors at West Point already had existing relationships with the doctors at Walter Reed, which helped to provide that continuity of care.”

The first panel concluded their discussion by pointing out several areas that needed to be addressed by future research including the long-term impact of COVID-19, the cumulative impact of moves and deployments across childhood and into adulthood, and how family well-being impacts the well-being of children.

The next panel discussion of the symposium addressed recent and ongoing research projects and included scientists from USU, Purdue University, and the Naval Health Research Center. Much of the research presented focused on the effects of frequent moves and deployments on service members and their families.

Dr. Elizabeth Hisle-Gorman, an associate professor of pediatrics at USU, presented recent research that indicates more frequent moves result in a higher likelihood of mental health diagnosis among military children. The study also found evidence that frequent moves increase the level of preventive health care military children receive, suggesting moves can be used as a way to connect kids with the healthcare system.

The research panel also presented research that demonstrates parental well-being plays a vital role in the well-being of children, the effects of deployments can last many years, and the transition from military to civilian life for those who transition out of the military can be exceptionally stressful. The researchers suggested this may be caused by the transition to civilian life and the loss of the military support system.

These conclusions were major topics in the third and final discussion, where the members of the advocacy and research panels came together to discuss the importance of converting research to action.

“Data drives change, we might think we know things but until we do the studies that are necessary we won’t know how to employ needed interventions,” said Patricia Barron, deputy assistant secretary of defense for community and family policy. “The research supports the conclusion that the health and well-being of parents are so critical to the health outcomes of children.”

In light of this research, the panelists emphasized the significance of integrating every available resource such as chaplains and education professionals to care for families as a whole.

The panelists also pointed out that research showing deployment effects are long-lasting, coupled with the evidence of the difficulty of transitioning to civilian communities, indicates the need for educating professionals in the civilian sector.

“I was particularly struck by the long-term effects of deployments,” said Eileen Huck, deputy director for the National Military Family Association. “It speaks to the importance of educating providers outside of the military system about the impacts of service. All of these children will at some point leave the military health care system, and those providers need to be informed of the challenges they’ve faced.”

The symposium concluded with remarks from the moderator.

“I hope we can continue to build on some of the discussions, multidisciplinary collaborations, and engagement with our advocates, stakeholders, and DOD leaders,” said Hickey. “I think this is an example of where it takes all of us working together to get where we need to be in the service of military children.“

For more information on the Month of the Military Child and the resources available to families, visit Military OneSource.