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Brief Report |

Effect of a Clinic-Based Referral System to Head Start:  A Randomized Controlled Trial FREE

Michael Silverstein, MD, MPH; Christopher Mack, MS; Nicole Reavis, MEd; Thomas D. Koepsell, MD, MPH; Gregory S. Gross, EdD; David C. Grossman, MD, MPH
[+] Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Department of Pediatrics, Boston Medical Center, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, Mass (Dr Silverstein); Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program (Drs Silverstein, Koepsell, and Grossman), Harborview Medical Center (Mr Mack and Dr Grossman), and Departments of Pediatrics (Ms Reavis and Dr Grossman) and Epidemiology (Dr Koepsell), University of Washington, Seattle; Dr Gross is an independent consultant in Jacksonville, Fla.


JAMA. 2004;292(8):968-971. doi:10.1001/jama.292.8.968.
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Context Early childhood development programs such as Head Start have proven benefits for impoverished children. However, few physicians assist families with enrollment.

Objective To test if a primary care–based intervention is efficacious in increasing Head Start attendance.

Design, Setting, and Participants Randomized controlled trial of 246 Head Start–eligible children aged 0 through 4 years recruited in spring 2003 from 4 health clinics in Seattle, Wash.

Interventions List of Head Start telephone contacts provided to families of all children and, for those in the intervention group, a computer-generated packet containing a physician referral letter (and a physical examination form and immunization record, if available) mailed directly to Head Start by study personnel.

Main Outcome Measure Head Start attendance by January 2004.

Results The 123 children analyzed in each study group were similar at baseline. Overall, 72 children (29%) were successfully connected with Head Start (ie, actively attending or on a waiting list) by January 2004. Among the intervention group, 50 children (41%) were successfully connected with Head Start, contrasted with 22 (18%) in the control group (adjusted difference, 17%; 95% confidence interval [CI], 8%-27%). Among the intervention group, 31 children (25%) were actively attending Head Start, contrasted with 14 (11%) in the control group (adjusted difference, 12%; 95% CI, 3%-21%). Only 2 clinics contributed children to Head Start waiting lists. Among children from these clinics, 19 of 87 (22%) in the intervention group got onto a Head Start waiting list, vs 8 of 94 (9%) in the control group (adjusted difference, 13%; 95% CI, 5%-21%). To get 1 child either into Head Start or onto a waiting list, we needed to refer 4 children.

Conclusion Facilitating an initial connection to Head Start on families' behalf substantially increased Head Start attendance.

Figures in this Article

The integration of community resources with health care delivery is an important component of quality medical care.1,2 Although much has been written about referral patterns between primary care physicians and specialists,3,4 little is known about how primary care clinicians integrate their services with those of other community-based organizations. For children, one important evidence-based community resource is high-quality preschool. Early childhood development programs produce sustained cognitive, social, and educational benefits for low-income children.510 In the United States, the largest of these programs is Head Start. Any family at or below the federal poverty level is eligible to enroll its 3- to 4-year-old children in Head Start, and its 0- to 3-year-old children in Early Head Start. Social and educational benefits have been observed among Head Start graduates11; early results of a randomized controlled trial of Early Head Start supports its effectiveness across a range of outcomes.12

In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended publicly funded development programs for impoverished preschool children and suggested the promotion of such programs as part of well-child care.13 A subsequent study, however, showed that few pediatricians assist families with Head Start enrollment,14 a finding that prompted experts in the field to call for better, more systematic connections between clinicians and providers of early childhood services.15 We therefore undertook a randomized controlled trial of a clinic-based referral system to Head Start.

Participants

Clinicians, office staff, and research assistants at 4 clinics in Seattle, Wash, recruited a convenience sample of children aged 0 through 4 years to participate in the study. Patients' siblings and children present in clinic for reasons other than medical care (eg, dental care, social work consultation) were also eligible. Children were excluded if they were in obvious distress, previously enrolled in Head Start, unaccompanied by a primary caregiver, or if their families were unable to provide any contact information. Only children eligible for Head Start were included; eligibility was determined by a computerized screening instrument (available from the authors on request) that considered the child's age, family income and receipt of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and whether the child was in foster care. Children were enrolled between March 6 and May 13, 2003. The Seattle Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center institutional review board approved this study. We obtained written informed consent (and, after April 15, 2003, a written Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act release) from every family.

Intervention and Outcome Measures

The objective of the intervention was to facilitate initial contact between families and Head Start, and to transfer the medical documentation required for Head Start enrollment. Families of all children in the control and intervention groups were given a language-appropriate telephone contact list of all Head Start agencies in the metropolitan Seattle area. For intervention children, a referral packet was also generated by computer and mailed directly to Head Start by study personnel; the packet contained a physician referral letter, including information for Head Start to contact the family; a physical examination form; and the child's immunization record. The second and third items were included only if available. Every Head Start agency in the target area participated in the project. None altered its established enrollment criteria to prioritize children from the study, and all signed a memorandum of understanding prior to study participation.

Families reported their primary language, whether the child was the family's first or had any special health care needs, and whether the family had previous experience with Head Start enrollment.

Our primary outcome was Head Start attendance by January 2004. To obtain this information, a designated employee at each Head Start agency indicated by standardized checklist whether each child in both study groups was attending Head Start, on a waiting list, or neither. To test whether the intervention affected other steps leading to Head Start enrollment, we conducted a telephone survey in June 2003. We asked families whether they had been in contact with anyone from Head Start and, if so, whether the family or Head Start had been responsible for making this contact.

Statistical Analysis

We estimated a sample size of 100 in each study group to show a 20% difference in Head Start attendance with 95% certainty and 80% power, assuming a statistical worst-case scenario that 50% of children would attend Head Start.

Children were randomly assigned to study groups within each clinic using a computerized random number generator (Figure 1). Telephone survey administrators, investigators, and Head Start personnel reporting enrollment data were blinded to study allocation.

Figure. Flow of Children Through the Trial
Graphic Jump Location

We assessed intervention effect by intention-to-treat analysis, estimating relative risk and risk differences with log-binomial or binomial regression,16 adjusting for clinic as a fixed effect and correcting for family clustering using robust standard error estimates.17 Children were considered siblings if they had the same guardian and lived at the same address. Because only children from clinics 2 and 4 got onto Head Start waiting lists, only children from these clinics were included in waiting list–specific analyses.

We assessed effect modification by clinic by adding clinic × study group interaction terms to the base regression models. To check for residual confounding, we estimated intervention effect by multivariable logistic regression, adjusting for child's age and sex, household size, primary language, parents' previous experience with Head Start enrollment, receipt of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and presence of special health care needs. We used logistic regression for this purpose because convergence could be achieved across a wider range of covariate combinations than with binomial or log-binomial regression.18 Statistical analyses were performed using Intercooled Stata 7.0 (Stata Corp, College Station, Tex).

Research assistants screened 366 children for Head Start eligibility. Of these, 115 were ineligible. Three additional children were excluded prior to randomization: 2 for having incomplete contact information and 1 at the parent's request. Of the 248 children randomized, 124 were allocated to each study group. One child was withdrawn from each group because both proved to be duplicates of previously randomized children. The analysis included 123 children in the intervention group and 123 in the control group. Among these, there were 4 sets of siblings, comprising 9 children in total.

Within each clinic, the proportion of children randomly assigned to the intervention group ranged from 46% to 57% (Table 1). There were no clinically meaningful differences between groups with regard to age, sex, household size, English being the family's primary language, or previous parental experience with Head Start enrollment.

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 1. Baseline Characteristics of All Children Included in the Analysis

The survey response rate was 75% (78% of intervention and 72% of control families). Fifty-seven percent of intervention families reported being in contact with Head Start, contrasted with 36% of control families (adjusted difference, 21%; 95% confidence interval [CI], 7%-35%) (Table 2). Of those families reporting contact with Head Start, 85% of intervention families reported that Head Start had initiated the contact, contrasted with 32% of control families (adjusted difference, 54%; 95% CI, 36%-71%).

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 2. Effect of the Referral Intervention on Subsequent Contact With Head Start and Head Start Attendance

Overall, 72 children in the study (29%) were either actively attending Head Start or on a waiting list by January 2004. Although 46 children enrolled in Head Start, 1 child in the control group dropped out prior to data collection, leaving 45 (18%) actively attending and 27 (11%) on a waiting list. In the intervention group, 50 children (41%) were either actively attending Head Start or on a waiting list, contrasted with 22 (18%) in the control group (adjusted difference, 17%; 95% CI, 8%-27%) (Table 2).

Thirty-one children in the intervention group (25%) were actively attending Head Start, contrasted with 14 children in the control group (11%) (adjusted difference, 12%; 95% CI, 3%-21%) (Table 2). Two Head Start attendees from the control group had siblings in the intervention group, and therefore possibly benefited from the intervention. Only children from clinics 2 and 4 got onto Head Start waiting lists. Among the children at these 2 clinics, 19 of 87 (22%) in the intervention group were on a waiting list at the time of data collection vs 8 of 94 (9%) in the control group (adjusted difference, 13%; 95% CI, 5%-21%).

Sample size limitations precluded reliable analysis of effect modification by clinic. Multivariable regression models controlling for slight imbalances in baseline characteristics demonstrated no change in the effect of the intervention.

A simple, computerized referral system can be effective in the primary care setting in promoting Head Start attendance. By facilitating an initial contact between families and Head Start, we were able to increase Head Start attendance substantially, compared with providing families with a list of telephone contacts. To get 1 child into Head Start, we needed to refer 7 children; to get 1 child either into Head Start or onto a waiting list, we needed to refer 4.

Studies have shown that when health professionals contact medical specialists on patients' behalf, follow-up improves.3,4 Few studies, however, have examined completion of referrals to community-based organizations. In a case series, Needlman et al19 reported poor follow-up among mothers with depression referred to community resources, and Rushton et al20 reported suboptimal follow-up among children with psychosocial problems referred to mental health services. Our study adds to this literature by offering a strategy to refer children to Head Start from the primary care setting.

Our study has several limitations. In randomizing by child, we inevitably introduced intrafamily contamination when siblings were assigned to different study groups. Families of control children, by being screened for Head Start eligibility and getting a list of local Head Start resources, received a potentially helpful service; and our follow-up telephone survey possibly acted as a reminder intervention to both study groups. Such limitations, however, likely only attenuated the effect of the intervention relative to that of the controls.

Our study included a small number of practices in a single geographic area, its population was nonrandomly selected from among those present at community clinics, and it was designed as a trial of efficacy, not effectiveness. Additionally, the centerpiece of the intervention was a free-standing computer program that required a clinic computer for its operation. On these counts, the generalizability of the study may be questioned. Furthermore, in locales having relatively fewer Head Start slots than Seattle, our intervention might preferentially place children on waiting lists as opposed to into programs. Although this might lead to program expansion in such areas, it would be less helpful to the actual families referred.

Considering these limitations, it appears that using a mailed referral packet to facilitate initial contact between families and Head Start may be an effective strategy for promoting Head Start attendance from the physician's office. Although the results of this study are not necessarily generalizable beyond the interface between primary care and Head Start, they do raise questions concerning how primary care clinicians might refer low-income patients to other community resources outside the medical system.

Wagner EH, Austin BT, Von Korff M. Organizing care for patients with chronic illness.  Milbank Q.1996;74:511-544.
PubMed
Glasgow RE, Orleans CT, Wagner EH. Does the chronic care model serve also as a template for improving prevention?  Milbank Q.2001;79:579-612, iv-v.
PubMed
Forrest CB, Glade GB, Baker AE, Bocian AB, Kang M, Starfield B. The pediatric primary-specialty care interface: how pediatricians refer children and adolescents to specialty care.  Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.1999;153:705-714.
PubMed
Forrest CB, Glade GB, Starfield B, Baker AE, Kang M, Reid RJ. Gatekeeping and referral of children and adolescents to specialty care.  Pediatrics.1999;104(1 pt 1):28-34.
PubMed
Schweinhart LJ, Barnes HV, Wiekart DP. Significant Benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 27Ypsilanti, Mich: High/Scope Press; 1993.
Campbell FA, Ramey CT. Effects of early intervention on intellectual and academic achievement: a follow-up study of children from low-income families.  Child Dev.1994;65:684-698.
PubMed
Reynolds AJ, Temple JA, Robertson DL, Mann EA. Long-term effects of an early childhood intervention on educational achievement and juvenile arrest: a 15-year follow-up of low-income children in public schools.  JAMA.2001;285:2339-2346.
PubMed
Johnson D, Walker T. A follow-up evaluation of the Houston Parent-Child Development Center: school performance.  J Early Intervent.1991;15:226-236.
Lally J, Mangione P, Honig A. Long-Range Impact of an Early Intervention With Low-Income Children and Their FamiliesSan Francisco, Calif: Far West Lab for Educational Research and Development; 1997.
Zoritch B, Roberts I, Oakley A. Day care for pre-school children.  Cochrane Database Syst Rev.2000;(30):CD000564.
PubMed
 Head Start Program Performance Measures: Longitudinal Findings From the FACES Study . Washington, DC: US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2000.
Love JM, Kisher EE, Ross CM.  et al.  Making a Difference in the Lives of Infants and Toddlers and their Families: The Impacts of Early Head Start. Available at: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/core/ongoing_research/ehs/ehs_intro.html. Accessed September 5, 2002.
Anderson LM, Shinn C, St CJ.  et al.  Community interventions to promote healthy social environments: early childhood development and family housing: a report on recommendations of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services.  MMWR Recomm Rep.2002;51(RR-1):1-8.
PubMed
Silverstein M, Grossman DC, Koepsell TD, Rivara FP. Pediatricians' reported practices regarding early education and Head Start referral.  Pediatrics.2003;111(6 pt 1):1351-1357.
PubMed
Zuckerman B, Halfon N. School readiness: an idea whose time has arrived.  Pediatrics.2003;111(6 pt 1):1433-1436.
PubMed
McNutt LA, Wu C, Xue X, Hafner JP. Estimating the relative risk in cohort studies and clinical trials of common outcomes.  Am J Epidemiol.2003;157:940-943.
PubMed
Localio AR, Berlin JA, Ten Have TR, Kimmel SE. Adjustments for center in multicenter studies: an overview.  Ann Intern Med.2001;135:112-123.
PubMed
Deddens JA, Petersen MR. Estimating the relative risk in cohort studies and clinical trials of common outcomes.  Am J Epidemiol.2004;159:213-214.
PubMed
Needlman R, Walders N, Kelly S, Higgins J, Sofranko K, Drotar D. Impact of screening for maternal depression in a pediatric clinic: an exploratory study.  Ambulatory Child Health.1999;5:61-71.
Rushton J, Bruckman D, Kelleher K. Primary care referral of children with psychosocial problems.  Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.2002;156:592-598.
PubMed

Figures

Figure. Flow of Children Through the Trial
Graphic Jump Location

Tables

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 1. Baseline Characteristics of All Children Included in the Analysis
Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 2. Effect of the Referral Intervention on Subsequent Contact With Head Start and Head Start Attendance

References

Wagner EH, Austin BT, Von Korff M. Organizing care for patients with chronic illness.  Milbank Q.1996;74:511-544.
PubMed
Glasgow RE, Orleans CT, Wagner EH. Does the chronic care model serve also as a template for improving prevention?  Milbank Q.2001;79:579-612, iv-v.
PubMed
Forrest CB, Glade GB, Baker AE, Bocian AB, Kang M, Starfield B. The pediatric primary-specialty care interface: how pediatricians refer children and adolescents to specialty care.  Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.1999;153:705-714.
PubMed
Forrest CB, Glade GB, Starfield B, Baker AE, Kang M, Reid RJ. Gatekeeping and referral of children and adolescents to specialty care.  Pediatrics.1999;104(1 pt 1):28-34.
PubMed
Schweinhart LJ, Barnes HV, Wiekart DP. Significant Benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 27Ypsilanti, Mich: High/Scope Press; 1993.
Campbell FA, Ramey CT. Effects of early intervention on intellectual and academic achievement: a follow-up study of children from low-income families.  Child Dev.1994;65:684-698.
PubMed
Reynolds AJ, Temple JA, Robertson DL, Mann EA. Long-term effects of an early childhood intervention on educational achievement and juvenile arrest: a 15-year follow-up of low-income children in public schools.  JAMA.2001;285:2339-2346.
PubMed
Johnson D, Walker T. A follow-up evaluation of the Houston Parent-Child Development Center: school performance.  J Early Intervent.1991;15:226-236.
Lally J, Mangione P, Honig A. Long-Range Impact of an Early Intervention With Low-Income Children and Their FamiliesSan Francisco, Calif: Far West Lab for Educational Research and Development; 1997.
Zoritch B, Roberts I, Oakley A. Day care for pre-school children.  Cochrane Database Syst Rev.2000;(30):CD000564.
PubMed
 Head Start Program Performance Measures: Longitudinal Findings From the FACES Study . Washington, DC: US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2000.
Love JM, Kisher EE, Ross CM.  et al.  Making a Difference in the Lives of Infants and Toddlers and their Families: The Impacts of Early Head Start. Available at: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/core/ongoing_research/ehs/ehs_intro.html. Accessed September 5, 2002.
Anderson LM, Shinn C, St CJ.  et al.  Community interventions to promote healthy social environments: early childhood development and family housing: a report on recommendations of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services.  MMWR Recomm Rep.2002;51(RR-1):1-8.
PubMed
Silverstein M, Grossman DC, Koepsell TD, Rivara FP. Pediatricians' reported practices regarding early education and Head Start referral.  Pediatrics.2003;111(6 pt 1):1351-1357.
PubMed
Zuckerman B, Halfon N. School readiness: an idea whose time has arrived.  Pediatrics.2003;111(6 pt 1):1433-1436.
PubMed
McNutt LA, Wu C, Xue X, Hafner JP. Estimating the relative risk in cohort studies and clinical trials of common outcomes.  Am J Epidemiol.2003;157:940-943.
PubMed
Localio AR, Berlin JA, Ten Have TR, Kimmel SE. Adjustments for center in multicenter studies: an overview.  Ann Intern Med.2001;135:112-123.
PubMed
Deddens JA, Petersen MR. Estimating the relative risk in cohort studies and clinical trials of common outcomes.  Am J Epidemiol.2004;159:213-214.
PubMed
Needlman R, Walders N, Kelly S, Higgins J, Sofranko K, Drotar D. Impact of screening for maternal depression in a pediatric clinic: an exploratory study.  Ambulatory Child Health.1999;5:61-71.
Rushton J, Bruckman D, Kelleher K. Primary care referral of children with psychosocial problems.  Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.2002;156:592-598.
PubMed
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