Columbus, OH

Ohio State students and alumni work to expand accessibility of infant care education

The Lantern
The tiny foot of a premature baby as seen through the porthole in an isolette in the neo-natal intensive care unit at MetroHealth Hospital. MetroHealth also cares for infants from community hospitals. MetroHealth’s NICU is one of the largest and most progressive. Credit: Lynn Ischay | The Plain Dealer (via TNS)

SmileChild, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the prevalence and efficacy of infant care education, works to ensure all children can play, laugh and — most importantly — smile.

Founded by a group of Ohio State students in 2017, the organization was first conceptualized when co-founder Anand Shah’s Eminence Fellows cohort was tasked with creating ways to give back to the Columbus community.

“It’s very easy to get stuck in the Ohio State bubble, everything on campus is new, it’s exciting,” Shah, now an Ohio State alum and first-year medical student, said. “It is hard sometimes to understand when you drive a mile away from campus, there are pretty significant problems that are impacting people every single day.”

Shah said the Eminence Fellows decided to focus their efforts on reducing Columbus’ infant mortality rate. According to a 2020 report from the Ohio Department of Health, Ohio’s overall infant mortality rate — which accounts for infants’ deaths prior to their first birthdays — is estimated to be 6.7. This number comes in well above the national average of 5.6, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in November.

“We realized that infant mortality is oftentimes preventable,” Shah said. “When you compare the infant mortality rates of Franklin County versus that of the United States, there is a tremendous disparity not only in those ratios, but also when you look at race, ethnicity and other socioeconomic factors.”

Devi Nelakurti, a fourth-year in biomedical science and SmileChild’s co-president, said the nonprofit’s main focus has been developing its mobile app.

The app is scheduled to be market-tested in a 75-person research trial in early 2024, Nelakurti said. This upcoming study is organized in partnership with Moms2B, a prenatal health education program established by the Wexner Medical Center in 2010, Nelakurti said.

SmileChild’s mobile app is designed following the organization’s three-part paradigm: “Learn, Earn, Smile.” Nelakurti said users will learn about safe infant care practices, earning rewards as they complete lessons.

The app’s learning modules are roughly 20 minutes in length; to achieve a greater degree of accessibility, Nelakurti said all content has been written at a fifth-grade reading level. She said the modules will also include games and comprehension quizzes to help boost users’ retention.

Upon completing each module, users will earn virtual tokens that can be redeemed for incentives like diapers and gift cards, Nelakurti said.

Such rewards will be curated to match the corresponding learning module. For example, if a user is learning about safe sleeping practices for infants, Nelakurti said that the module’s tokens would go toward an item in the same vein as a pack-and-play.

The app also includes a community-based component that will allow mothers to chat with other mothers and caretakers who can give valuable advice during any tricky parental situation, Nelakurti said. Additionally, the feature will track members’ progress within a user’s personal care circle.

“So, you could say, ‘Hey, mom, grand-mom is doing a lot of modules and she’s on top of the leadership board,’” Nelakurti said. “That can really incentivize or create friendly competition among family.”

When designing the app, SmileChild’s development team understood its members came from relatively privileged backgrounds and could not exactly relate to many of its target audience’s daily struggles, Shah said.

“It shouldn’t be something where we are the ones deciding for others what they need most,” Shah said. “We really took that perspective-first approach, to look at the population at need, go into those communities, and ask them, ‘Hey, we understand this is a problem. You all know this is a problem. What is it that you think is most needed to be able to fix this?’”

Shah said SmileChild hopes to make a visible, positive impact on Ohio’s infant mortality rate by empowering mothers and helping them avoid unnecessary emergency room visits.

“The hope is that every mother in Ohio is downloading this app to get the best infant and maternal health education they can receive,” Shah said.

Shah said everyone on the SmileChild team currently works for free, not “for a resume,” but because members are wholly committed to tackling the issue of Ohio infant mortality before it stagnates or worsens beyond redress.

The staff is entirely composed of current and former Buckeyes, including co-founders Anand Shah and Sarthak Shah, co-presidents Nelakurti and Ava Barone, and researchers Nikita Nair and Kiah Kapoor.

Additionally, software developers Pranav Chati, Dylan Sussman, Rishivarshil Nelakurti, Chris Lorence and Raagul Sundaralingam, designer Madyson Webb and alumni advisers David King, Ryan Ziegler, Leila Akberdin and Austin Bridges are all Ohio State students or alumni as well, Nelakurti said.

“My favorite part about working with SmileChild is seeing how [the] innovation and skills we learn in the college classroom can translate into something tangible to make a difference in the community,” Nelakurti said.

More information about SmileChild, including its mobile app, can be found on the organization’s website .

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