Through optimal early childhood education and care, children equipped with firm foundations have better chances at school and better economic success in adulthood. Yet, the science and investment into early childhood development (ECD) is not at the stage it rightly deserves. Evidence suggests that every $1 invested in a child today, reaps between $7 and $12 during adulthood, but most importantly it has a positive impact on children.
For this reason, the Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority (ECA) has established the WED Movement (World Early Childhood Development Movement). It is a forward-looking ‘glocal’ (globally thought and locally enacted) movement that unites the world's finest minds to tackle pressing challenges faced by Abu Dhabi and beyond, to positively impact the early development of today’s children. To achieve that, the WED movement has created the Breakthrough Working Groups (BWGs), which are four pluri-disciplinary groups made of world-leading policy influencers, academics, practitioners, innovators, private sector leaders, philanthropists, and beneficiaries. Each BWG identifies problem areas, proposes science-based solutions, and develops implementation programmes.
Dr. Hossam Al Tatari is a member of the Breakthrough Working Group that focuses on the theme of ‘21st Century Lifestyle’ and its affects. “Between the age of zero and eight is a critical period for children, as they develop mentally, socially and physically. There is a belief that these age groups are not receiving the necessary attention from the healthcare and educational sectors. WED focuses on early childhood to support the vital development of children,” he explained.
Dr. Hossam Al Tatari, Adjunct Professor of Pediatrics at University of Western Ontario and Pediatric Infectious Diseases Consultant, The Heart Medical Center, Al Ain
Present childcare ecosystems
Dr. Al Tatari revealed that to drive discussions on how to improve early childhood, a decision was taken to establish brainstorming working groups, each addressing a different aspect related to early childhood.
“Three different groups were created, one focused on the ecosystem surrounding children, another on the negative impact of modern life on children, and the third on how it can be used to support children in a positive way. The BWGs worked very closely for more than a year to analyse the current situation. We started locally in Abu Dhabi, expanding from the emirates to an international focus. Based on our analysis and the status of early childhood all over the world, we came up with a set of recommendations that were submitted to the Early Childhood agency to improve all the aforementioned aspects,” he said.
Application of AI and digital tools
There are many questions on the rise with healthtech and digitalisation adoption in healthcare gaining prevalence, and a recent discovery of AI improving outcomes for depression treatments. Can it also be used to monitor the emotional well-being of expectant mothers?
“The future is AI. We use AI in our daily lives in some form or the other. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that AI is going to affect parenthood and early childhood, whether we like it or not,” emphasised Dr. Al Tatari.
Machine learning is a subset of artificial intelligence (AI), which is one of the fastest-growing technical domains and has been widely employed in forecasting birthing modes and analysing potential maternal complications throughout pregnancy. A systematic analysis of how AI has been applied to pregnant women over the previous 12 years was conducted by researchers from the University of Seville in Spain. AI can detect illnesses like congenital heart birth abnormalities or macrosomia, gestational diabetes, and preterm delivery early, according to the study. In the latter case, research into artificial intelligence cases discovered a link between the frequency of pre-term births and the amount of pollution to which the pregnant women had previously been exposed.
Effective computing systems could allow emotions-based tracking among pregnant woman, such as detecting emotional changes and providing counsel or recommendations that the system would have previously obtained from doctors. This can help the patient feel safer and more connected to her healthcare provider, as well as minimise the anxiety and concern that often lead to physical difficulties.
Addressing prospects in neurodevelopment
How could digital tools help detect neurodevelopmental abnormalities? According to Dr. Al Tatari, a video camera that captures the movement in daycare could analyse a particular child and note if he or she is achieving basic milestones of their age.
“Examples include the child’s progress in using the right motor skills — gross motor skills to walk and climb and fine motor skills to hold stationary or draw. When an AI tool is fed with data such as a specific child’s weight, age, height, and other background information it can analyse if the child if he or she is developing as per his range. This is extremely valuable as these factors determine a child’s key developments. As paediatrician, I have encountered various delayed cases wherein assessments were late. Parents were inattentive, or teachers and carers did not see the warning signs. A step as simple as installing a video AI tool in the corner of a room to monitor the child throughout the week and produce a report can support clinical practice as well. Parents or caregivers can hand the assessment to their doctor or neurologist for further assessment and treatment, as it becomes part of the patient’s history,” he said.
When asked about how the WED movement and BWGs help foster wide partnerships from other markets, he commented: “Our partnership extends to everyone globally, specialists, childcare and development researchers among many who share an interest in early childhood. We accumulate data and have scientific research to support our recommendations that can be applied to patients for better outcomes. Our goal is to share this knowledge with the healthcare community to see an improvement in areas which are often neglected. On the other hand, we also want to share our pool of information, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel again, as we have everything ready.”