Dr. Kristen Hughes
Fostering Healthy Habits to Combat Childhood Obesity

A pediatrician for 11 years, Dr. Kristen Hughes is an enthusiastic advocate for addressing childhood obesity. She has worked for the Santa Barbara Public Health Department for six years as a general pediatrician in two county health centers, caring for the most vulnerable populations in Santa Barbara, where 44% of pediatric patients aged 2-18 are overweight or obese. Five years ago, Dr. Hughes came across a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics that turned her clinical world upside down. Research had shown that the current model of pediatricians addressing childhood obesity in clinics by solely focusing on direct education and advice was ineffective.

“It broke my heart. It said that all the work I do every day in the clinic does not work.”

The article encouraged pediatricians to work outside of their clinic walls to make the type of policy, systems and environmental changes that can lead to a significant impact on their patients’ lives. Eager to maximize her impact, Dr. Hughes reached out to a variety of health care, non-profit, and private businesses to organize a community-wide collaboration to address childhood obesity issues in her community. The missing piece proved to be her partnership with Susan Liles, Director of Nutrition Services at the Santa Barbara County Public Health (SBCPH) Department, and the Champion Provider Fellowship (CPF) program.

As a result, she worked with the SBCPH Nutrition Services team's Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs), Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, and CalFresh Healthy Living (CFHL) program to develop "healthy habits" appointments to help families make small steps toward a bigger goal. Dr. Hughes found that families were overburdened with the demands of balancing work and remote schooling during the pandemic. As a consequence, children adopted a more sedentary lifestyle and poor dietary habits. To motivate families to take on healthier lifestyles, she began meeting with them once a month to set goals to improve nutrition, increase physical activity or play, and reduce screen time.

“I knew I had to think outside the box and advocate for what we know will impact the health and well-being of children. The Champion Provider Fellowship helped me do that and now I'm seeing ways to work upstream and develop systems and policies that better serve our community.”

Dr. Kristen Hughes, Santa Barbara, Pediatrician

Through the monthly visits, Dr. Hughes discovered that families needed support with finding physical activity connections in their communities. She worked closely with SBCPH to develop a team that created a website to connect families to physical activities available in real-time. In January 2022, they launched the site, which lists a menu of activities families can pick from, categorized by sport, location, and languages spoken. The site includes videos and resources in English, Spanish, and Mixteco. Families can learn about the website during appointments with their healthcare providers and at WIC visits. The WIC program incorporated it into their general nutrition class and Dr. Hughes presented the information at a pediatric provider meeting. The providers went on to place posters in their exam rooms and utilized quick texts in the electronic medical record system to provide patient instructions. Patients and families can easily access the website on their mobile phones or tablets via text message or a QR code. Since the website launched, there have been over 1,700 video views and over 130 referrals to the resources via provider visits each month.

“My goal is to continue working with the Santa Barbara Public Health Department, community partner organizations, and families to create a system that incentivizes being physically active and that also builds socialization. It takes a village and I want to help get the kids out of their silos with their friends and be more physically active in their community.”

California Department of Public Health, Champions for Change and UCSF