Alumni Award Winner Focuses Systems on Helping Children Improve Communication
Patti Freemyer Martin’s combination of degrees led her from working as a practitioner in the field of audiology to leading systems change at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. She started with a bachelor’s degree in communication disorders from the University of Arkansas and is this year’s recipient of the College of Education and Health Professions Outstanding Alumni Award in Health and Human Services.
A master’s degree was required to practice audiology and Martin earned hers from a combined program of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She worked briefly as an audiologist in an ENT practice before she began building the Audiology and Speech Pathology department at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock in 1985.
It quickly became apparent to her that early identification of hearing loss was crucial for children and that lack of resources and access to services worked against early identification. She decided she needed a doctorate in public policy to try to make a difference, earning it from the U of A in 2006. She realized that social determinants such as poverty level, food and housing insecurity, access to services and parental education level were highly influential on a child’s communication gains.
“We know it is never ‘too early’ when it comes to the identification of hearing loss and children have the best outcomes when identified in the first few weeks or months of life and receive high quality services,” Martin said. “We need to get technology, support and services to families early, but there is so much variability in outcomes that early identification is not enough. In a state like ours with many families living in rural areas or confronted with challenging social situations, access to services is an ongoing issue. Having providers with the specific skills and knowledge to promote communication development in children who are deaf or hard of hearing is variable. That makes this much more of a community issue than just about audiology and speech pathology.”
She has helped push a shift at Arkansas Children’s Hospital over the past couple of decades that focuses on the child’s family as the center of the treatment effort.
“The family is the expert about the child – the child’s first teacher,” Martin said. “Parents are the driver of expectations and goals. We include family members in every appointment or intervention session. Our strategies involve a coaching and mentoring model to help parents recognize how to turn everyday activities and routines in to language-rich experiences. Besides focusing on communication development, we also know that parents need support for the emotional journey and we work to connect them to those resources as well.”
Another push has been promoting early reading skills not only for children with hearing loss, but for all children.
“Literacy is linked to long-term success in areas such as education, employment and health and we continue to look for ways to promote early experiences with books for families,” Martin said. “One of things I’ve learned in my 30 plus years is that what is good for children who are deaf or hard of hearing is good for all children. Our mission at Arkansas Children’s is to make kids better today and healthier tomorrow and that includes doing our part to help children be ready for kindergarten.”
Martin is a Director in Ambulatory Care Services at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, overseeing Audiology, Speech Pathology, Primary Care services, Otolaryngology and Dermatology. She is an adjunct assistant professor of Audiology at UAMS and a consultant for the National Center on Hearing Assessment and Management.
Her passion about the many ways that families affect outcomes of children is reflected by ongoing grant-funded projects, frequent invited national presentations and multiple peer-reviewed publications.