Medical Pioneer Honored Near and Far for Advancing Pediatric Care

October 20, 2004

Robert Haggerty, M.D., who coined the term “new morbidity” and championed the creation of community health centers, receives multiple honors this month that solidify his status as one of the most prominent pediatricians of the 20th century.

On Friday, Oct. 22, Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong will dedicate the Robert J. Haggerty Child Health Services Research Laboratories, where pediatricians will work together to study topics such as school-based asthma management and the use of telemedicine in day care settings. That same day, he will receive the International Pediatric Association’s inaugural Dogramaci Award in recognition of his stellar career. A reception in his honor will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday in the Sarah Flaum Atrium.

On Monday, Oct. 25, Haggerty will receive the 2004 Alfred I. duPont Award for Excellence in Children’s Health Care. Recognizing lifetime contributions to excellence in children’s health care, it comes with a $50,000 cash prize. It makes perfect sense that Haggerty is being honored simultaneously on the local and international stages. “I started my career by helping individual children, and then turned my focus to families,” he says. “Before long, I was working with communities. And for the past 25 years, my efforts have been focused on the world.”

Five decades of helping kids

At Harvard Medical School in the 1950s, Haggerty, a graduate of Cornell University and Cornell School of Medicine, became interested in psychosocial stress as a cause for many children’s illnesses. His research regarding the association of stress and increased susceptibility of children to infections served as a springboard for many future studies, and is a forerunner to a host of research activities occurring in Rochester today.

“Perhaps the best research I ever did was during that time was when I studied the relationship between strep throat and stress in children,” Haggerty says. Following 100 children for a year, he determined that, within two weeks of being exposed to household stress, children had rates of bacterial infection that was four times the norm.

In 1964, Haggerty became chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center. There, he continued to revolutionize pediatrics by coining a term for the psychosocial issues that influence children’s health, but which largely had been ignored. His focus on what he dubbed the “new morbidity” gave more importance to non-medical factors, such as the effects of stress on health. The idea of new morbidity affects the way young doctors are trained today, because those who want to work with children are required to spend one month studying behavioral medicine.

In addition, Haggerty became a pioneer in the creation of community health centers, which have become the primary source of health care for many inner-city children nationwide. “We realized in the 1960s a growing sense of responsibility for all of the children in our community, whether they were being cared for in local hospitals or not,” Haggerty says. “Many inner-city families did not have access to health care – whether because of finances or transportation – and we had to address that.”

Haggerty helped secure a $3 million annual grant from the federal government to create community health centers, the likes of which existed only in Boston. One of the original sites is known today as the Anthony Jordan Health Center.  “In the 1960s, in the seventh ward where residents could use one of our newly created community health centers, we saw a 33 percent decrease in hospitalization rates, and a 40 percent decline in the use of the emergency department,” Haggerty says. “In the third ward, where the demographics were similar but there wasn’t access to a community health center, the numbers stayed the same.” Haggerty felt a similar obligation to provide health access to migrant workers, and he helped found what later became the Oak Orchard Health Center.

In 1975, Haggerty returned to Harvard, but left in 1980 to become president of the W.T. Grant Foundation in New York City, where he focused on improving the mental health of school-age children. From 1992 to 1999, he served as executive director of the International Pediatric Association, and an editor-in-chief of the Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. He also served as co-editor of the journal Pediatrics, and associate editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. This year, he plans to retire as editor of Pediatrics in Review, a journal he founded that is sent to more than 75,000 pediatricians worldwide.

Honored locally for his work

Haggerty’s early work in the field of child health services research made him an obvious choice when deciding after whom to name the new research labs, says Elizabeth McAnarney, M.D., pediatrician-in-chief at Golisano Children’s Hospital. “Dr. Haggerty is a national treasure,” she says. “Since Bob is so gentle and gracious, others may not fully appreciate the greatness of this man.”

Child Health Services Research involves the study of non-medical factors on children’s health. Among the topics being studied at Golisano Children’s Hospital are the effect of providing health insurance on children’s access to care; measuring the societal burden of illnesses such as childhood influenza and RSV; measuring the impact of the influenza vaccine, including how physician practices have changed as a result of the vaccines availability; studies of the effect of school-based asthma management on asthma rates; studying the use, accuracy, and impact of telemedicine in day care settings; and the screening and managing post-partum depression during visits to a child’s pediatrician. 

Recognized internationally for excellence

The Alfred I. duPont Award for Excellence in Children’s Health Care was established in 2001 by the Board of Directors of Nemours to honor duPont’s legacy of care for children.  In his life and work, Alfred I. duPont, benefactor of Nemours, was creative but exacting – seeking for himself and inspiring others to achieve excellence.  This year’s recipient celebrates the work of an individual who has made outstanding contributions to health care for children that fulfils the ideals of the award’s criteria. 

“Dr. Haggerty has spent his life with a mission to improve children’s care nationally, and Nemours salutes his valiant and effective efforts of advancing his vision of excellence,” says W. T. Thompson III, chairman of the Nemours’ Board of Directors. “He transformed pediatric training and pediatric care models in ways that still support excellence in children’s health care, and to focus on patient-centered care.”

Haggerty counts among his many achievements the training of thousands of medical students and hundreds of residents, many of whom have gone on to productive, meaningful careers in pediatrics.

Pediatrics is ‘an absolute pleasure’

The author of more than 120 original papers, Haggerty is also editor or author of three books, one of which – “Ambulatory Pediatrics” – is in its fifth printing. In addition, he has authored nearly 200 book chapters, editorials, and abstracts. He has been visiting professor and/or lecturer at more than 50 institutions. Haggerty was a founding member of the Ambulatory Pediatric Association and one of its presidents, and served on the board of directors for Praxis, the Rochester-based company that produced the first approved Haemophilus influenza type B vaccine. His honors include the prestigious John Howland Award from the American Pediatric Society, and membership in the prestigious Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Science.

Perhaps the best professional decision Haggerty made was as a medical student in Boston more than 50 years ago when he decided to pursue a career in pediatrics. “I realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career ushering people out of life,” he says. “Working with children who are beginning their journey has been an absolute pleasure.”

Haggerty lives in Canandaigua with his wife of 54 years, Muriel. They have four children and are awaiting the birth of their 10th grandchild.

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