“When I was young, my mom and I would play ‘pediatrician,’” said Katharine Zuckerman, M.D., M.P.H. “At that time, female doctors weren’t common, but thanks to this playtime, the notion had always been familiar to me.” Fast forward through high school, college, grad and medical school, as well as a pediatric residency and fellowship, and what was make-believe is now reality.
An associate professor of pediatrics in the OHSU School of Medicine, Zuckerman splits her time seeing young patients at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and researching the relationships between health care disparities and early childhood development. Although she never envisioned herself in a research capacity, the path has expanded her health care focus.
“I think it [research] makes me a better clinician, and vice-versa,” she said. “My frustration with the problems my patients face in accessing care and services they need inspires me to try to make those problems better.”
At the heart of Zuckerman’s research is early access to care for children with autism spectrum disorder, which she describes as a necessity for long-term patient function: “For many children with autism, obtaining these necessary services is very difficult, and it shouldn’t be.”
The bulk of Zuckerman’s work is focused on families and health care providers in underserved communities. Through this work, she has identified multiple obstacles to autism care access and services utilization, ranging from language barriers and limited education to insurance restrictions and state or local funding decreases.
“Families, communities, health care providers, and health and educational systems all play a role in the access to proper health care,” she explained. “Once we understand these roles, we will be able to design more effective solutions to reduce these problems across the board.”
To expand this understanding, Zuckerman is now working to train primary care providers in underserved settings to more effectively screen and refer children at risk of autism or another developmental disability.
“It has been really exciting to see how primary care doctors can rapidly increase their skills and improve the care for the kids they see in the office,” she noted. “However, much more research needs to be done in this area, as well as with the empowerment of parents and caregivers to understand their child’s development and health care needs. And, ultimately, to take action when they have concerns.”
Zuckerman recently led two research projects that explored barriers to diagnosis and use of autism services. The first, published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics identified the relationship between parent-reported severity of autism symptoms and the utilization of available resources. A second involved conducting a survey of both Latino and non-Latino families of children with autism. Through this study, Zuckerman was able to determine the importance of English language proficiency in mitigating barriers to condition diagnosis and treatment. The results are published in the journal Pediatrics.