Health outcomes continue to worsen for UK children – say leading children’s doctors

Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) warns that across most indicators, health outcomes are worsening for children who live in deprived areas.

Paediatricians are raising concerns over the worsening health of UK children living in low-income families or areas of social deprivation. Healthcare professionals know first-hand that poverty and health are intrinsically linked, and that child poverty is a key driver of lifelong health inequalities. Health inequalities are the avoidable, unfair, and systematic differences in health outcomes between different groups of babies, children, and young people. The drivers of health inequalities are the social, economic, and environmental factors in which individuals live that have an impact on their health outcomes.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current cost of living crisis cannot be understated. Inflation has risen to 10.1% in the month of February, with the key driver being cost of food and household bills. Data released last week shows that 4.2 million children (29% of all UK children) were in poverty - up from 3.6 million in 2010-11. We also learned that 800,000 children lived in households that needed food from a foodbank in the past 12 months. But we should be mindful that poverty was already rising consistently before the pandemic.

Health inequalities driven by poverty are growing dramatically, especially in children. Paediatricians are now seeing worsening health outcomes in areas such as oral health, nutrition, respiratory health, mental health, and general wellbeing. While reports from paediatricians is anecdotal, we have been able to confirm these observations in Government data and wider research. For example:

  • Data found that children living in the most deprived areas of the country were almost 3 times as likely to have experience of dental decay as those living in the least deprived areas. 
  • The National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) for England 2021/22 found that children living in the most deprived areas were more than twice as likely to be living with obesity, than those living in the least deprived areas, with 31.3% of Year 6 children in the most deprived areas living with obesity compared to 13.5% of those living in the least deprived areas. 
  • Referral rates to secondary mental health services are 57 per cent higher among children from deprived areas than those in more affluent neighbourhoods and self-harm hospital admissions for children aged eight to 17 in the UK jumped 22% in 2022.
  • Asthma and Lung UK found that areas where people are more likely to experience poor lung health are also areas where people experience higher levels of deprivation. This is particularly concerning given that asthma is the most common long-term condition among children and young people, with 1.1 million children currently receiving asthma treatment. It continues to be among the top 10 causes of emergency hospital admission for children in the UK, with more admissions occurring in deprived areas. The UK currently has the highest mortality rate in Europe for children and young people with the underlying cause of asthma.
  • A recent University College London study found that ‘Generation Z’ children born into the poorest fifth of families in the UK are 12 times more likely to experience a raft of poor health and educational outcomes by the age of 17 compared to more affluent peers. 

The data collected paints a terrifying picture, and one that was taken before the cost-of-living crisis. Paediatricians cannot be any clearer on this point; child health is in crisis and rampant health inequalities can no longer be ignored. 

It is essential that all children and young people have a base standard of living that promotes health and wellbeing – this includes access to dry and warm living conditions, a nutritious diet and good mental health. In this period of crisis, the 2023 Spring budget was a missed opportunity to respond to the challenges facing households across the UK and to transform child health for the benefit of our future generation of adults. RCPCH are calling for a renewed focus on children and young people in future policy making decision, with the prioritisation of preventative health policies and a fully funded, detailed NHS workforce plan.

RCPCH President, Dr Camilla Kingdon said: 

It’s now a fact that health and wellbeing of children and young people in the UK is steadily worsening, and that those living in or on the borders of poverty are being disproportionately affected. For paediatricians this is a devastating, but it does not come as a surprise. Afterall, we now have 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK. 

Time and time again healthcare professionals have warned about the insidious nature of child poverty, how it takes hold at an early age and can destroy a child’s future by stretching long into adulthood. It determines the food, or lack of, a child eats, the quality of air they breathe and even a child’s life expectancy. It is systemic and wholly unjust. 

Poverty and health inequalities are not inevitable – nor are they impossible to reverse. We have incredible child health professionals in this country who are committed to addressing this. As a result we have reams of research, data, trends, service designs and policy points that can guide us out of this crisis. We simply need the political appetite to tackle poverty once and for all. It’s time to get child health back on the political agenda.  The health of our nation depends upon it. 

Notes to Editor

  1. Households below average income: for financial years ending 1995 to 2022, GOV UK.
  2. National Child Measurement Programme 2022, GOV UK.
  3. Mental health services monthly statistics, NHS Digital.
  4. ‘End the lung health lottery’, Asthma and Lung UK.
  5. Poorest children have worse health and educational outcomes in adolescence, University College London.
  6. Child health inequalities driven by child poverty in the UK - RCPCH position statement.
  7. Find out more about how child health professionals can tackle health inequalities in the UK with the RCPCH Health Inequalities Toolkit.