In Profile: Patricia Parkin

Professor Patricia ParkinProfessor Patricia Parkin Professors Patricia Parkin, Catherine Birken and Jonathon Maguire set up the Applied Research Group for Kids (TARGet Kids!) in 2008. Today, this research network follows the growth and development of approximately 6,200 Ontario children.

Researchers face many knowledge gaps that TARGet Kids! can help address, says Parkin, a professor in the Department of Paediatrics and a paediatrician at The Hospital for Sick Children. For example, physicians 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 kids under five.

TARGet Kids!, coordinated through The Hospital for Sick Children and St. Michael’s Hospital, helps bridge gaps like this by monitoring and analyzing the health, growth and development data of participating children.

A key area of research for Parkin is iron deficiency, one of the most common micronutrient deficiencies in children. It is especially widespread in developing countries but is also common in Canada, and if not addressed promptly, it can lead to anemia — low levels of hemoglobin in the blood, weakness and fatigue — and impair neurodevelopment. Previous studies have shown that iron deficiency in children between one and three led to substantial and permanent reductions of IQ and had other serious health implications.

“There is an expression: what gets counted counts,” says Parkin. “The Canadian Health Measures Survey unfortunately does not collect any data on iron deficiency in the highest risk age group: children one to three years old. If we don’t have this important data, children’s health issues simply don’t get enough attention.”

Parkin hopes her work with TARGet Kids! will raise the profile of childhood health and growth issues that have long-term health and social effects. One study that Parkin leads with the TARGet Kids! Network  is called Optimizing Early Child Development in the Primary Care Practice Setting, on iron treatment for young children. She hopes the study will provide evidence for regular iron level screening for all young children during doctor visits.

Parkin is keen to promote the prevention of child health problems through research and policy. As a member of the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care, she recently helped 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.”