Billions could be saved by improving children's health, says Chief Medical Officer

Matthew Vizard
Authored by Matthew Vizard
Posted Thursday, October 24, 2013 - 10:48am

Much more needs to be done to improve UK children’s health, and acting early will save taxpayers’ money, the Chief Medical Officer has said in a frank assessment of the state of the health of the nation’s children.

Her latest report - which has the backing of several children’s charities - calls on government, the whole health service, social care and education professionals to take action and make improvements now. It highlights a strong economic case for doing more, sooner. For example, reducing obesity by just one percentage point among children and young people could lead to savings of £1 billion each year as children would be less likely to end up with long-term health problems needing NHS treatment.

In addition to improvements on physical health, the report highlights the need for society to support children to build emotional resilience, supporting children through better communication to learn from their mistakes and deal with life’s inevitable ‘ups and downs’.

Professor Dame Sally C Davies, Chief Medical Officer said: "My generation unquestioningly expected our future to be better than our parents’ and grandparents’. But our children and grandchildren face a far more challenging outlook. We need a renewed focus on children.

"This report questions whether we have got the balance right in our society and should act as a wake-up call. The evidence is crystal clear and the opportunity is huge – investing in children is a certain way of improving the economic health of our nation, as well as our children’s well-being."

Specific recommendations for change in the Chief Medical Officer’s report include:

  • A named GP should be available for every child with long term conditions;
  • A review of the cost-effectiveness of extending the Healthy Start Vitamin Programme to every child: NICE should be asked to examine the cost-effectiveness of offering the Healthy Start vitamins to every child. Healthy Start vitamins contain vital ingredients for children’s development, including vitamins A, C, D – all critical for growth, vision, healthy skin and strong bones;
  • A new national children’s week to help change our national culture to celebrate children and young people and help bring together the myriad of organisations with the power to make a difference – including government, charities and the NHS;
  • Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission should routinely ask for evidence on how well children’s and health services work together as part of the inspection process, to drive real joining-up of services across the system; and
  • A regular survey on mental health among children and young people, including comparisons with other developed countries, should be commissioned and published annually, to improve the evidence base for meeting young people’s mental health needs.

The report paints a stark picture of the experience children have growing up in our society, as well as the dramatic difference between the experiences of poor children and better-off children. The report highlights that:

  • Other countries do much better than the UK when it comes to children’s health. Over a quarter (nearly 27 per cent) of our children are either in or at serious risk of being in poverty, compared to just 16 per cent in the Netherlands;
  • Currently, 12.5 per cent of toddlers are obese. 17 per cent of boys and 16 per cent of girls up to the age of fifteen are obese too. The long-term societal cost of childhood obesity is estimated to be as high as £700 million each year; and
  • 75 per cent of lifetime mental health disorders start before 18 years of age, with the peak onset of most conditions being from 8 to 15 years. Approximately 10 per cent of adolescents suffer from a mental health problem at any one time.

The report also highlights a number of good examples of things that are already going on, like the government commitment to increasing the number of health visitors and the number of families that will be helped by family nurse practitioners. But it calls for wider and faster action.

Dr Hilary Cass, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: "We know that the UK lags behind much of Europe when it comes to child mortality rates and that there is too much variation in care of some common conditions such as asthma and diabetes. We’re also faced with one in three children aged nine who are overweight or obese and storing up health problems for the future, and increasing numbers of children suffering from poor mental health.

"Today’s report provides a timely reminder of the challenges we face and the importance of child health in the overall health of the nation. The focus on improving evidence around mental health, widening access to leisure activity to encourage children to be active, extended training paediatric training for GPs and ensuring more effective transition between child and adult health services is all welcome and have the potential to immeasurably improve health outcomes for children.

"Investing in children is not only an investment in today’s young people; it’s a sound investment for the future. Healthy children are much more likely to become healthy adults. So in the run-up to the next election, as the political parties prepare their manifestos, the challenge is to ensure that child health is high on the agenda. We have a duty to this generation of children, to the next generation and to generations to come.

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