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HRSA’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau: Grand Challenges

By Jessie Buerlein, Public Health Analyst, HRSA

The Health Resources and Services Administration’s (HRSA) Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB) is running a series of four Grand Challenges in 2018, each addressing a critical issue in maternal and child health. MCHB’s mission is to improve the health of America’s mothers, children and families. Our vision is an America where all children and families are healthy and thriving, and have a fair shot at reaching their fullest potential. In 2015, MCHB launched its first large-scale prize competition, the Bridging the Word Gap Challenge, in order to address the “Word Gap,” or the large difference in exposure to language for children from low-income families compared to children from high-income families.  By age four, children from low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than their higher-income peers, and this affects how young children develop language skills, their performance in school, and eventually their success in life.

The Challenge was designed to attract a diverse population of innovators and solvers, including coders, public health experts, Silicon-Valley start-ups, academic institutions, local non-profit organizations, and others. Applicants were tasked with developing a low-cost, scalable, technology-based intervention that drives parents and caregivers to talk and engage in more back-and-forth interactions with their young children.

Designed as a three-phase accelerator that moved 10 Phase 1 teams through the competition, the challenge yielded many desirable results.  The grand prize winner, Dr. Melissa Baralt, designed a mobile app called Háblame Bebé that promotes Spanish-English bilingualism and reduces the word gap for low-income children. The other semi-finalists’ interventions represented an incredible diversity of approaches and expertise, including wearable devices that measure words spoken to a child, apps that provide feedback and modeling to caregivers, apps that are location-based and send prompts to parents in real-time, and community-based strategies. While we awarded one final grand prize winner with the most promising innovation, we also catalyzed the development of four other evidence-driven products that are currently available to the public on iTunes and Google Play, and in so doing proliferated multiple interventions to address the Word Gap.


With the success and lessons learned from the Bridging the Word Gap Challenge, MCHB has launched four new competitions with a total prize amount of $1.5 million, referred to as the MCHB Grand Challenges. These include:

  1. The Preventing Childhood Obesity Challenge supports the development of innovations to empower low-income families to achieve healthy eating practices, healthy lifestyles, and sustainable changes within the home environment. Submissions for Phase 1 closed in September; Phase 1 winners will be announced in November.
  2. The Care Coordination for Children with Special Health Care Needs (CSHCN) Challenge supports the development of innovations focused on CSHCN that improve the quality of care, enhance family engagement, and positively impact health care outcomes. Submissions for Phase 1 are being accepted through November 9th.
  3. The Remote Pregnancy Monitoring Challenge supports the development of innovations to help prenatal care providers remotely monitor the health and wellbeing of pregnant women, as well as place health data into the hands of pregnant women. Submissions for Phase 1 are being accepted through November 27th.
  4.  The Addressing Opioid Use Disorder in Pregnant Women and New Moms Challenge supports the development of innovations to improve access to quality health care, including substance use disorder treatment, recovery, and support services for pregnant women with opioid use disorders, their infants, and families. Submissions for Phase 1 are being accepted through November 19th.

MCHB looks forward to f supporting innovations that improve the health of mothers and children nationwide!

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