Together with several partners, the University of Agder is developing a system for public health centres and the school health services to provide early assistance to children and young people.
“We are developing better digital tools and competencies around children's health in order to provide quick and effective assistance when children need it”, says Thomas Westergren.
He is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Agder (UiA) and head of the project ‘Godt begynt – barn og unge i Agder’ (Well begun – children and young people in Agder). The project has been ongoing since 2018 and was led by Kristiansand municipality from the beginning.
“The tools we develop will be used at public health centres and in the school health services, helping public health nurses to provide quick and timely assistance to children who need it from their first year of life through to upper secondary school”, says Westergren.
The project has now received financial support from the Sørlandet Knowledge Foundation and the Aust-Agder utviklings- og kompetansefond amounting to NOK 5.77 million spread over five years.
The project has a total budget of NOK 15.85 million for the period 2020-24 for the partners UiA, Kristiansand municipality, the Hospital of Southern Norway, Agder county municipality, Egde Consulting and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
“All children are in contact with the public health centre and school health services which have unique resources. Systematic use of children's health data, that the children themselves or their parents report, is crucial for identifying children who are having difficulties and for helping them quickly”, says Westergren.
The tools include a questionnaire on the development of children's and young people's health and quality of life. The parents - and the children when they are old enough - can log on, when requested, and submit their answers to a public health nurse before coming for a consultation. Public health nurses will thus have a better understanding when they meet and can address issues the family is concerned about.
The same information can be used in the municipality to assess and improve health services. Westergren and his colleagues will also examine the measures to find out how they work and what can be improved.
“The project is also important when it comes to the triangular cooperation between hospitals, municipalities and the university. The specialist expertise of the Department for Children and Adolescents and the Department of Child and Adolescent Mental Health is crucial in the project, and absolutely necessary for the development of services for children and young people in the municipalities”, says Westergren.
Mapping projects like Ungdata are already carried out every three years among Norwegian youth. But Ungdata is an anonymous survey and no one follows up the individual responses in the survey.
“Ungdata provides a lot of knowledge about young people, but does not include younger children, and the children and young people are not followed up. A key point of our research and development project is to follow up the responses that are given and provide immediate assistance to children and young people, and in this way improve Norwegian public health centres and school health services”, says Westergren.
He hopes the project and the survey of children's and young people's health in Agder can become a national project.
“Agder is in the lead, and we are proud to have the Institute of Public Health on our team. The Institute of Public Health has for a long time called attention to the need for the information the project collects”, says Westergren.
The first research article of the project has already been written and is ready for submission and review by a scientific journal. The article revolves around the first phase of the project from 2018 and shows that parents, children and public health nurses are positive to this way of working.
“All parties are interested in the mode of work and want to see the project continue”, says Westergren.
All municipalities in Agder are invited to participate in the project. So far, eight municipalities are involved and Westergren encourages more municipalities to join.
Head of Research Eirik Abildsnes in the municipality of Kristiansand manages the first phase of the project until 2021. He is pleased with the mapping tool the project has chosen to focus on and looks forward to developing the technology.
“The system must be simple and intuitive for parents and children to use. And the technology must be integrated into the digital systems used by public health centres and school health services on a daily basis”, says Abildsnes.
The Head of Research in Kristiansand hopes this project will be the start of a lasting collaboration between Agder municipalities, hospitals and the university on research and development projects related to children and young people.
“The municipality, together with the county government office, has challenged UiA to establish a centre for research on public health and living conditions in the region”, says Abildsnes.