UK children’s doctors given advice on how to help families in poverty

<span>Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA</span>
Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Children’s doctors plan to help poor families cope with the cost of living crisis and its feared impact on health, amid concern that cold homes this winter will lead to serious ill health.

In an unusual move, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) is issuing the UK’s paediatricians with detailed advice on how they can help households in poverty.

It has drawn up a series of resources, including advice for doctors treating children to use appointments to talk sensitively to their parents about issues that can have a big impact on their offspring’s health. These include diet, local pollution levels, socio-economic circumstances and difficulties at home or school, which are closely linked to children’s risk of being overweight, asthmatic or stressed.

“Don’t shy away from it,” the RCPCH’s 17-page manual says. “If we aren’t asking families about things which may impact on their children’s health, we are short-changing the children themselves.”

However, it adds that paediatricians should “pick your timing carefully [as] parents can feel alienated if we are perceived as jumping in with two feet to ask about smoking when they are stressed about an acutely unwell child with pneumonia.”

Doctors should then do what they can to direct poor families to places where they may get help with their living circumstances, such as getting free school meals for their child.

The initiative comes weeks after leading health experts warned that children could die this winter due to respiratory illness if soaring energy bills force their families to turn off their heating.

Six out of 10 paediatricians believe that the cost of living crisis is already affecting children and young people’s health, according to a new RCPCH survey of almost 500 members. Dr Camilla Kingdon, the college’s president, said its initiative was intended to help address the serious inequalities that blight children’s health, depending on their family’s income.

For example, children from deprived backgrounds are more likely to die in infancy, be admitted to hospital, be diagnosed with a long-term health condition or become obese than those from well-off homes.

“For paediatricians, child health inequalities are impossible to miss,” said Kingdon. “It’s in the asthma that won’t go away from poor quality damp housing, the destructive impact of food insecurity, poor dental health or low birth weight. Whole families are impacted … These issues impact children their entire lives and further entrench unacceptable inequalities.”

The resources would help children’s doctors understand the nature of poverty and the skills required to “speak openly about poverty in clinical settings”.

“Understanding a family’s ability to purchase certain foods helps us understand better how to support healthy nutrition, having a background knowledge of a child’s living conditions means we can appropriately assess and manage their respiratory conditions, and the ability to speak to families openly about their financial situation means we can help the family find the right support and services outside of the paediatric clinical setting,” Kingdon added.

A government spokesperson said: “We know that people are struggling with rising prices, which is why we have taken action through our £37bn support package to help households this winter, including protecting millions of the most vulnerable people with at least £1,200 of direct payments, starting with the £326 cost of living payment.

“We have invested £79m in 2021-22 alone to expand children’s mental health services, and we are promoting a healthy diet among children. This includes expanding access to free school meals, investing £24m into the national school breakfast programme, and our Healthy Start scheme payments for food and milk.”