The first few years of life present an excellent opportunity for doctors and parents to set a child on a trajectory towards long-term health. Several years ago, Patricia Parkin, together with her colleagues Catherine Birken and Jonathon Maguire, saw a need to engage child health researchers with practicing clinicians to advance preventive health care in early childhood and get more Canadian children on a healthy path.
In 2008, they established a research network called the Applied Research Group for Kids (TARGet Kids!) to achieve this goal. Today, this practice-based research group — coordinated by the Hospital for Sick Children and St. Michael’s Hospital — follows the growth and development of approximately 6,200 Ontario children from birth to childhood.
Parkin is a professor in the Department of Paediatrics and a paediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children. She explains that paediatric researchers in Canada face many knowledge gaps that collaborative networks could help address. For example, paediatricians and family doctors routinely measure the weight and height of young children during regular checkups; yet, on a national level, there is almost no data on average weights and heights of children up to five years old. TARGet Kids! research projects help bridge gaps like this by monitoring and analyzing the health, growth, and development data of participating Ontario children.
One of Parkin’s key areas of research is iron deficiency and anemia. Iron deficiency is considered to be the most common micronutrient deficiency among children. It is especially widespread in developing countries but is also very common in Canada.
Parkin explains that if it is not addressed promptly, childhood iron deficiency can lead to anemia — low levels of hemoglobin in the blood leading to weakness and fatigue — and impair neurodevelopment, as the human brain is growing substantially in the first years of life. Previous studies have shown that iron deficiency in children between one and three ultimately led to substantial and permanent reduction of IQ, and had other serious social and health implications.
“There is an expression: what gets counted counts. The Canadian Health Measures Survey – the national survey of Canadians’ health – unfortunately does not collect any data on iron deficiency in the highest risk age group: children one to three years old,” says Parkin. “If we don’t have this important data, children’s health issues simply don’t get enough attention. Our hope is that our work through TARGet Kids! can raise the profile of childhood health and growth issues that have long-term health and social effects.”
Optimizing Early Child Development in the Primary Care Practice Setting (OptEC) is a study on iron treatment for young children that Parkin leads within the TARGet Kids! network. She hopes that the results of the study, which is still underway, will provide evidence for the potential role of regular iron level screening for all young children during doctor visits in order to mitigate possible complications.
As a practicing paediatrician who regularly tackles children’s health problems in the clinical setting, Parkin is keen to promote the prevention of childhood health problems through her research, teaching, and public health policy work. Most recently, as a member of the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care, she helped to develop evidence-based guidelines on child obesity prevention and management for clinicians and policy-makers.
“Whenever I encounter common health problems among my patients, I ask myself: how can they be effectively prevented? This motivates my research and makes me think about ways to integrate new knowledge back into clinical practice.”
Parkin is excited about the opportunities for new research and partnerships created through The Joannah & Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition. “The Lawson Centre not only operationalizes research and work on solving childhood health problems but also symbolizes the willingness to work together. The partnership between departments of Paediatrics, Family & Community Medicine, and Nutritional Sciences is critical in achieving our goals,” says Parkin.
At a glance:
Patricia Parkin, MD, FRCPC
- Outcomes research in paediatric medicine, including diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of highly prevalent paediatric problems (eg injury, wheezing, dehydration, anemia) using epidemiologic methods (controlled clinical trials, observational methods, diagnostic test methodology, measurement methodology).
- Professor, Department of Paediatrics, University of Toronto
- Professor, Institute of Health Policy, Management & Evaluation, University of Toronto
- Research Director, Paediatric Outcomes Research Team (PORT), Division of Paediatric Medicine, Hospital for Sick Children
- Paediatric Physician, Paediatric Medicine Inpatient Unit and the Paediatric Clinic, Hospital for Sick Children
- Senior Associate Scientist, Child Health Evaluative Sciences, Research Institute, Hospital for Sick Children
- Phone: 416-813-6933
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
See Patricia’s profile on SickKids website for more information.