These doctors prescribe books

Beth Duda, Director of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, accepts a proclamation presented by Sarasota County Commissioner Michael Moran declaring April Reach out and Read Month at the county commission meeting Tuesday, Mar. 21, 2017. [Herald-Tribune staff photo / Mike Lang]

Beth Duda, Director of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, accepts a proclamation presented by Sarasota County Commissioner Michael Moran declaring April Reach out and Read Month at the county commission meeting Tuesday, Mar. 21, 2017. [Herald-Tribune staff photo / Mike Lang]

Manatee and Sarasota counties introduce Reach Out and Read at public health locations.

This won't hurt a bit. No, really. Sarasota County is working to implement Reach Out and Read, a program that encourages pediatricians to "prescribe" children's books.

ROAR, a national program started in 1989, trains pediatricians to incorporate literacy into doctors' appointments by handing out free books to children up to age 5 at child well-visits starting when they're 6 months old.

The program will be implemented at three public health centers in Sarasota and North Port by the end of April. On Tuesday, the county declared April Reach Out and Read Month. Manatee County is already a ROAR site, but the program is frequently stalled there due to book shortages.

For the next three years, the cost of books in both counties will be funded through a partnership between four local foundations, the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County and the Community Health Centers of Sarasota County. Besides the three sites in Sarasota, five locations in Manatee County are participating.

"It's not just a book giveaway program, it's a powerful clinical tool for us," said Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Watching the child interact with the book helps pediatricians assess development levels, Navsaria said. It's also a good opportunity to promote parent-child bonding and teach moms and dads a thing or two, he added.

ROAR trains pediatricians to model dialogic reading, a reading style that encourages a conversation with the child.

"Maybe the child is holding the book, they might go backwards, or flip to random pages," Navsaria said. "It doesn't matter if you don't ever read the story – it's ok if you just talk about the pictures."

Dr. Navsaria is the founding medical director of the ROAR program in Wisconsin. When he first moved to Dane County, Wisconsin 11 years ago, there was only one participating clinic. Now, there are 34 ROAR sites in Dane County and 190 in the state, Navsaria said.

Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and founding medical director of the ROAR program in Wisconsin.

Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and founding medical director of the ROAR program in Wisconsin.

Nationwide, there are nearly 6,000 sites that have implemented ROAR, including hospitals and private clinics.

It's one of the rare programs that has no drawbacks, said Dr. Dave Lyons, a pediatrician with the FDOH in Sarasota County. Lyons was already familiar with the program, having been a pediatrician at a ROAR site in Massachusetts.

"When we started it the impetus was that there were kids out there that were getting to pre-k or kindergarten who had never seen a book," Lyons said. "This was an attempt to get books into the hands of everybody, but especially the kids with no or limited contact to books."

The program is an efficient and easily implementable tool to improve public health, said Beth Duda, director of the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

Implementing ROAR is part of the campaign's effort to ensure that children are reading proficiently by third grade. Roughly 32 percent of third graders in Sarasota County did not meet reading standards last year. In Manatee County, the number was at 53 percent.

In addition to underwriting the program, The Patterson FoundationCommunity Foundation of Sarasota CountyUnited Way of Manatee County and Manatee Community Foundation will collect data on its impact.

If the program is successful in helping to promote literacy, the foundations will consider setting up an endowment to continue the initiative.

"From a public health perspective, encouraging early learning and early literacy makes a huge difference in a child's long-term wellbeing," said Chuck Henry, health officer for the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County.

PARTICIPATING ROAR SITES

Sarasota County

Sally and Sam Shapiro Babies and Children's Medical Center

1750 17th St. (at the Glasser Schoenbaum Human Services Center), Building E, Sarasota

William L. Little Health and Human Services Center

2200 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota

North Port Health Center

6950 Outreach Way, North Port

Manatee County

Lawton Chiles Health Center

1515 26th Ave. East, Bradenton

Edgar H. Price Jr. Family and Children Healthcare Center

12271 U.S. Highway 301 N., Parish

Whole Child Pediatrics

6040 53rd Avenue E., Suite B, Bradenton

Manatee Pediatrics

712 39th St. W. Bradenton

Arcadia Pediatrics

250 N. Brevard Ave. #2, Arcadia