April 12, 2023

Faculty Spotlight: Jenny Radesky, M.D.

Faculty Spotlight: Jenny Radesky, MD

You’re currently serving as the Division Director of Developmental/Behavioral Pediatrics. Could you explain this role and how you got here?

I joined Michigan Medicine in 2016, having previously come from Boston Medical Center. I came here because I wanted to be close to family and friends, but also wanted to be near colleagues I had met in other roles. By joining the Department of Pediatrics, I knew I would receive mentorship opportunities and could have a really successful research career.

As I began to grow professionally over the last few years, I started to think about what might be next for me. When the opportunity arose for the Division Director position, I thought it would be a great fit because of my passion for understanding and supporting children’s differences. I have had some big shoes to fill from Dr. Felt!

I think our division does a really great job in terms of research on issues related to child development, eating behavior, stress, parent-child relationships, and media. But because so many of us are researchers, we have limited clinical time, despite doing what I think is exceptional clinical care. Around the country, Developmental Behavioral Pediatricians are seeing that we don’t always have enough clinicians to serve this huge need that exists in the population. I wanted to take on the role of Division Director to address these challenges.

Developmental and behavioral problems such as Autism, and ADHD, are prevalent now more than ever before. I want to challenge the clinical models that currently aren’t meeting the needs of families, and augment access through the synergies of our research and clinical work.

For example, I am focused on building a division that creates novel programs where we can identify school problems faster, identify autism sooner, and help families navigate through the complicated web of evaluations and treatments.

It can feel extremely alienating for parents and children who go through these challenges. Our focus is to help reduce psychological and logistical barriers for them.

What made you want to go to medical school?

I’ve always been interested in public health and I’ve been inspired by people who work to improve large populations, including my own aunt who was an economist who studied how public health broadly impacts our economies. I knew that I wanted to be part of building equity in access to healthcare.

While in medical school, I was really able to see just how much potential there is for early intervention in childhood. While working in an adult psychiatry clinic, I heard so many instances of trauma and early adversity and felt like there must be larger-scale, public health-informed ways that we can help prevent and buffer kids against adversity. Fellowship training in Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics provided me with the clinical insight to understand how to support early childhood development and relationships, and brought me to where I am now.

I think kids are fascinating and I really enjoy watching them grow and meet life’s challenges. As a mother of two, it has been a journey to raise kids in parallel with my training and clinical work.

Can you share your vision for your division going forward and what you hope to achieve?

Overall, our vision is to meet the pressing needs of children and families in Michigan. While we are not psychiatrists, we often address a lot of the upstream factors that lead to problems that can appear in later adolescence.

As a division, we are excited to build novel programs that integrate more developmental and behavioral care into primary care in the medical home, and then study it in a research-based way to generate evidence of success.

We have the Pediatric Early Autism Recognition Program (PEARS) that is based in a few Michigan Medicine clinics. Through this program, we’ve trained primary care doctors to carry out an extra screening assessment for autism. Wait times for specialized autism evaluations can often be very long. Through this program, parents are able to receive testing sooner, providing clarity earlier. The families have said that this program really helps them understand their child's differences and motivates them to get their children the assistance they need.

We’re trying to be creative with ways that we can improve access and build capacity within the medical home, where families feel a lot of trust and safety.

It is my hope that we can help PCPs screen earlier and intervene right away. Instead of waiting 6-12 months for a specialized evaluation, there are smaller, focused evaluations we can do earlier on to help clarify and intervene.

Another part of the vision is the destigmatization work in our field. I want to break down barriers and help guide families through developmental and behavioral problems. We all have different minds, and I know how isolating it can be for these families.

What else should we know about your roles and interests?

My research is heavily focused on children and digital media. I am a co-Medical Director for the Center for Excellence on Social Media and Youth Mental Health. Through this grant-funded research, we are addressing the crisis of mental health and the role that social media plays in it.

We all experience overuse of social media, regardless of age. Digital media is designed to keep us scrolling. We’re working to establish healthy ways to cope with social media and find ways to manage viewership on these platforms.

In this project, we are working with tech companies to create healthier app designs and provide resources to teachers and parents to build healthy relationships with digital media, and also, when to intervene.

In your opinion, what makes the Department of Pediatrics an ideal place to work?

We have a strong collaborative nature and a neighborly approach to the culture of medicine. When I joined as a junior faculty, everyone was willing to help me and learn what I was interested in. In pediatrics, we’re able to build strong relationships between PCPs, research groups, and subspecialists.

This goes beyond just our department. When I first started, I reached out across campus to the School of Communication and the School of Information to find ways we could collaborate. Everyone is so driven to work together.

What else do you like to do outside of work?

I like to spend time outdoors, whether it’s hiking in nature or just walking my dog. I also really enjoy spending time with my kids. During the pandemic, I started reading books out loud with my youngest son, and it’s become a calming ritual for us that’s continued ever since. We’re big into books in our family.

About Dr. Radesky
Dr. Jenny Radesky

Dr. Radesky is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician and clinical researcher whose NIH-funded research focuses on interactive/mobile media use, the parent-child relationship and child social-emotional outcomes. She is vice Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media, and authored AAP policy statements Media and Young Minds (2016) and Digital Advertising to Children (2020). She is now Medical Director of the AAP Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Health, which provides guidance to families about healthy media use.