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Financial coaching offered through pediatricians offices could improve infant health

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Most parents don't go to the pediatrician's office for financial advice, but a new study suggests it may be what some parents need. NPR's Pien Huang reports on an experiment that aims to ease the money strain on new parents and improve infant health.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Four years ago, Chris and Daisy Quitco had a baby girl. They brought her to their pediatrician for her 1-month appointment.

CHRIS QUITCO: We were expecting crying babies and flu shots, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

HUANG: And while doctors and crying babies were part of it, they also got paired with a personal financial coach.

C QUITCO: We never expected this type of program. Walking into a clinic like that and being able to speak to someone about what we're going through, especially our life experiences and debt or finances.

HUANG: At the time, they had lots of debt and bad credit scores. Chris worked as a repairman and picked up shifts driving for Uber. Daisy stayed home with the baby.

DAISY QUITCO: My husband was just living paycheck to paycheck. And that's the time the financial counseling helps us a lot to prioritize - yeah, that's the word - to prioritize what it's need - to prioritize for us to save money, too.

HUANG: The Quitcos had come across an experimental program based at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, not far from where they live in Compton, Calif. Dr. Adam Schickedanz is the pediatrician and researcher who helped start it. He says the clinic pairs low income parents with financial coaches to help with the biggest problems these parents face.

ADAM SCHICKEDANZ: Food insecurity, housing insecurity, transportation issues, utility bill - all of those, you know, at their core, have a financial component.

HUANG: Schickedanz and his team started the experiment in 2018. They recruited 80 families with new babies. Half were paired with financial coaches, and the other half got regular care. The difference showed up quickly. A new paper published in the journal Pediatrics finds the families with financial coaches came to more of their babies preventive care visits and missed fewer vaccinations in the first six months.

SCHICKEDANZ: It was somewhat unexpected that there would be such a strong impact on retention in care and no-show rates in our clinic, but it's nice to see.

HUANG: The families of financial coaches also increased their average monthly income by over $1,700, and they saved more money than those without. Dr. Tumaini Coker, a researcher at the University of Washington, says the study adds to existing research that shows that non-medical staff, like social workers, can add value to health care.

TUMAINI COKER: When you expand the team who's providing care for families in early childhood, you can make the well child care experience more meaningful. And when people find things more meaningful, they come.

HUANG: Coker says the challenge is getting non-medical workers paid for in a clinical setting. For Chris Quitco, getting a financial coach at the doctor's office was a lifeline for his family. After completing the program the first time around, he kept signing up.

C QUITCO: To be honest with you, we've actually graduated twice. But we insisted on staying with them because there are so much resources and help that we get from them that it's so hard to leave.

HUANG: Their financial coach helped get their daughter into free day care. His wife, Daisy, is now pursuing her nursing license. Chris got promoted at work, and he's raised his credit score from terrible to near perfect. And while the last few years have not been easy, their daughter is warm and well-fed, and Chris is healthier and sleeping better than he ever has.

C QUITCO: A lot of the stress levels have practically depleted to nothing.

HUANG: Now, at 38 years old, Chris says he's on solid financial ground for the first time in his life, and his daughter is loving the day care they found through their financial coach.

Pien Huang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS SONG, "SCAR TISSUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.