The under 20s are an “overlooked generation” when it comes to healthcare and have been neglected , storing up problems for the future, Britain’s leading paediatrician has warned.
And it’s endangering future prosperity with every pound spent on youngsters being returned tenfold over a lifetime, he says.
Professor Russell Viner points out the UK has a higher proportion of children and young people than almost all other countries in western Europe.
But these 15.5 million under 20s – more than the whole population of 19 of the other 27 EU countries – is an overlooked generation.
He said: “This will provide us a future demographic dividend of a larger working-age population if – and only if – we protect their health.”
Prof Viner, who takes up the role of president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) this week, said priorities must change now to halt the slide in health outcomes.
He said countries that invest in child health “reap impressive economic rewards – with each pound spent on children’s health returning over £10 to society over a lifetime.”
In contrast poor health in childhood “leads to reduced workforce participation and productivity and lowers national wealth.”
Prof Viner, of University College London’s Institute of Child Health, said we are poorly positioned to reap these benefits as children’s health outcomes are much worse than in most other wealthy European countries.
He said: “Children and young people aged 0-19 years are the workforce of the 2020s and the parents of the next generation.
“Their health will be one of the factors deciding whether the UK is prosperous after 2019.”
Prof Viner said the health of children in England is being harmed by deepening public sector cuts and “disjointed” government policies.
Earlier this year a report by the RCPCH found the government had failed to improve care in a number of “fundamental areas” – such as by banning junk food advertising.
Prof Viner points out Scotland and Wales have both recently announced new national strategies to improve children’s health.
Yet in England health services for children and young people “struggle for priority and there is no sign yet of a national strategy.”
For example, the NHS Five Year Forward View mentions children and young people briefly only in relation to prevention and mental health.
Meanwhile the 2016 General Practice Forward View mentions children only once – despite them making up a large proportion of primary care attendances.
Patients under 18 made up 25 percent of A&E attendances in 2015-16. But the 2013 Transforming Urgent and Emergency Care Services in England mentions this group briefly twice.
Prof Viner said: “Children and young people are a quarter of our population but 100% of our future.
“Our moral obligation to promote children’s health is clear within UK law and in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“Furthermore, 94% of adult Britons believe children’s health should be a priority for the NHS.
“Despite this, the low priority that UK health systems give to children suggests we must marshal other arguments to convince policy makers.”
Prof Viner said the lack of focus has begun to tell. Across the UK large gaps in the paediatric workforce have lowered morale in children’s services.
Recruitment into paediatric training positions in 2017 was the worst ever. Workforce deficiencies, low morale and lack of focus on children are cited as reasons for large numbers of services receiving poor ratings for safety and effectiveness.
Prof Viner said the moral and economic reasons for action are clear. He called for “a new focus on health services for the children and young people who carry all our futures.”
For each UK country this means a targeted health strategy – formulated in partnership with children and their families – and covering early life from from conception to adulthood.
For England it also means a greater visibility within NHS England priorities in primary care and emergency care and in the new integrated care systems.
Prof Viner said: “The Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health is keen to work with governments to achieve these aims. Business as usual for child health will not build a healthy and prosperous United Kingdom,” he concludes.
Three years ago a survey of over 2,000 UK adults commissioned by the RCPCH showed overwhelming public support for a series of policies which would improve children’s health.
It found children’s healthcare was as much a priority for them as that for adults and the elderly.
Reducing child death rates (76%), reducing rates of childhood cancer (77%) and ensuring consistent health service provision for children and young people across the UK (77%) were the top three issues the public wanted addressed.
There was also high levels of support for policies to help tackle obesity (59%), lower the UK’s child mortality rates and address concerns around children’s mental health (69%).
Prof Viner said: ” The UK,and particularly England, urgently needs a new focus on health services for the young people who carry all our futures.
“We must challenge the unconscious bias that leaves children beneath our natural line of sight.”