Alumni Spotlight | Nathan Chomilo, M.D.

Alumnus promotes health equity by making books a standard feature of pediatric care
By Susan Maas

Once upon a time, there was a bow-tie-clad doctor who believed deeply in the power of books to give babies, toddlers, and preschoolers their best chance in life. That doctor’s devotion to early childhood literacy steadily grew, and soon led him to advocate for equity and justice for all.

His snappy wardrobe — the colorful bow ties “are part of my look, and they’re also clinically better than neckties” (studies show that neckties harbor germs) — and his apparently boundless energy make Nathan Chomilo, M.D., seem a bit like a storybook character himself. The Park Nicollet pediatrician and internal medicine hospitalist serves as medical director for Reach Out and Read (ROR) Minnesota, which incorporates books and reading into pediatric care, and is a go-to source for media on the vital importance of early childhood literacy.  

The power of early reading

An alumnus of the University of Minnesota Medical School (Class of ’09), Chomilo was appointed to the Governor’s Early Learning Council in 2016, is active in the Minnesota chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (including serving as an AAP Early Childhood Champion), and is cofounder and vice president of Minnesota Doctors for Health Equity. Those activities reflect his keen interest in social determinants of health — the conditions into which people are born, grow, work, and age, and which largely account for health inequities. Reading, he says, is a proven way to influence the trajectory of a child’s life. 

Chomilo’s involvement with ROR Minnesota began in 2009 when he was in the second week of his internship and ROR’s then-medical director, Laurel Wills, M.D., came to speak at a lunchtime lecture he attended. 

“She talked about this simple intervention done during pediatric well-child checks, where the doctor talks about the importance of books and gives a book that’s appropriate for that child’s age and developmental stage,” recalls Chomilo.

The participating physician also gives parents tips for making story time more engaging and interactive, such as emphasizing rhyming or, for older children, asking open-ended questions. The “how” is important and it varies by age, he says. “And there’s evidence behind it — this isn’t just a feel-good thing.” 

The program capitalizes on a critical window of brain development — during a child’s first three years — and the unique physician-patient relationship to give kids a foundation for success. Chomilo was captivated; after the lecture, he asked how he could get involved. Today, he is the state chapter’s medical director.

Evidence of the program’s impact continues to mount: families served by ROR are 2.5 times more likely to enjoy reading together or have books in the home, and their children’s language development advances by three to six months on average, according to data from the national organization. One study published in Clinical Pediatrics found that participating toddlers scored higher in receptive and expressive vocabulary, regardless of parental education, parental language proficiency, or foreign-born status.  

Offsetting stressors

Poverty, racism, discrimination, those are all stressors. But there are also experiences that buffer that. The time that you feel safe and loved with a trusted adult is one way to buffer against that toxic stress.

– Nathan Chomilo, M.D.

That’s a big deal, Chomilo explains, because low literacy is linked to poverty, substance abuse, and crime later in life. And reading together as a family also has been shown to increase parents’ confidence in their parenting abilities — and help offset anxiety for both child and parent. 

“Poverty, racism, discrimination, those are all stressors,” Chomilo says. “But there are also experiences that buffer that. The time that you feel safe and loved with a trusted adult is one way to buffer against that toxic stress. 

“This is why I wanted to become a doctor, to help improve my community,” he says.

ROR is one promising, relatively low-cost path to decreasing the state’s vast racial disparities — what Chomilo calls “gaps in opportunity” — but it requires buy-in from doctors and policymakers, Chomilo says. Physicians, already squeezed to do more in less time, sometimes hesitate to add ROR to their practices. “But almost universally, they find that it just fits seamlessly with their visits.”

Speaking of time, the self-described “citizen-physician” appears to manage it well. Besides his many other roles, Chomilo finds time to spend with family, serve as an adjunct assistant professor at the U of M Medical School, play adult league soccer, attend Vikings games, travel, and devour comic books. “I’m a big comic book nerd,” he admits.

Not surprisingly, reading is a favorite pastime for the whole family. Chomilo’s 2-year-old son, Nchare, is currently into Please, Baby, Please by Spike Lee and a picture book about trucks. “One of my proudest moments in the past year was when he was around 16 months, he went to the bookshelf, grabbed a book and brought it to me,” says the friendly doctor, as a broad smile appears just above his bow tie. 

Published on April 3, 2019

Lead photo: Brady Willette

The read-aloud habit

Today, one in three children in Minnesota between 6 months and 5 years attends a clinic that participates in Reach Out and Read (ROR). Two-thirds of those children live in the Twin Cities metro area. “My goal, and ROR’s goal, is to make this the standard of care for pediatrics in all of Minnesota,” says Nathan Chomilo, M.D., medical director of the Minnesota chapter. Because about 90 percent of children will be seen at least once by a pediatrician in the first year of life, he says, doctors have the chance to help families set the read-aloud habit early on.