Medical school alumna is a voice for all children

Colleen Kraft, a 1986 VCU graduate, will take over as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics in January.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then Colleen Kraft, M.D., might say it takes a pediatrician who knows that village to heal one.

Colleen Kraft, M.D.
Colleen Kraft, M.D.

Kraft, who earned her medical degree from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in 1986, believes spending time in the community is what opened her eyes to the daily issues and concerns facing the children and families she cared for in the office. Nothing, Kraft says, can replace the education you receive when you observe a child’s everyday environment. Some of her greatest insights came during conversations at the park, visits to the local library, school nurse’s office, daycare centers and church nurseries.

“Kids spend 15 minutes in the [doctor’s] office but they live in the community,” she said. “Your investment in the community is what really makes a difference.”

Kraft, who is preparing to take the reins in January for a one-year term as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, counts herself as someone who has been on the receiving end of community investment. Growing up near Akron, Ohio, she was part of the inaugural class of Head Start in 1965. It was there that the seed to become a doctor was planted.

“One of the teachers said, ‘You’re so smart. You could be a doctor when you grow up,’” Kraft said.

She carried those words with her throughout her years as a student and trainee. They continued to inspire her when she embarked on a career as a pediatrician, founded the pediatric residency program at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and taught on the medical faculties at VCU and the University of Cincinnati.

As part of her new role at AAP, Kraft served as the keynote speaker for the 39th annual Pediatrics at the Beach conference in Virginia Beach in July. Hosted by the VCU Department of Pediatrics, the continuing medical education course regularly attracts attendees from all over the country and Canada, and sometimes as far away as Saudi Arabia. This year’s 300-plus attendees marked the conference’s largest turnout ever.

Kraft encouraged the gathering of physicians, nurses, medical assistants, medical students and others to be a voice for all children.

“We’re the advocates,” she said. “We know what children need.”

Children are always listening and they are looking for heroes.

Whether that translates to lobbying for Medicaid funding or working to address bias and discrimination concerns, she reminded the group of another adage about children: They are always listening.

“We’re in an age with a lot of talk and rhetoric,” she said. “Watch what you’re saying. Children are always listening and they are looking for heroes. That’s where we come in.”

For Kraft, community involvement has no borders. She has worked at hospitals in India, researched neonatal mortality in Ghana and trained nurses in South Africa.

“As pediatricians, we care about kids all over the world,” she said.

In addition to working to improve children’s health, Kraft also aims to improve the health of pediatricians in her role as AAP president. Finding ways to address physician burnout is critical, she says, and advances in technology and team-based care can help.

It’s all about making more time in the day for patients, and spending less time on paperwork and charting, Kraft said. She advised conference attendees to try scheduling a follow-up appointment using telemedicine or hiring a medical assistant to room patients and serve as a scribe as ways to reclaim time that has been lost in present-day practices.

“We can’t do it by ourselves but we can do it with team-based care,” she said.

That is the same team philosophy she applies when talking to members of the community and what inspired her to co-author the book “Managing Chronic Health Conditions in Child Care and Schools,” a resource guide that emphasizes how conditions from asthma to autism are best cared for through partnerships among families, health care professionals and schools.

Sharing pediatric knowledge with these partners results in an empowered community, Kraft says. And that, she said, is how to ensure families and communities “go to their pediatrician before Google.”


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