The health status of children is linked to socioeconomic status

I’ve written before about how children from poor families have a higher chance of needing PICU care than do children from more affluent families. Eligibility for Medicaid is a good marker for this; nearly half the population of most urban PICUs is made up of children on Medicaid, even though the national average (it varies a little from state to state) for children on Medicaid is about 25%. So poor kids are more likely to become critically ill.

report from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation, a renowned health policy organization, lays out how poverty correlates so closely to poor health. This chart is the most telling. It measures a somewhat vague quantity, something they call “children in less than very good health.” They obtain this value by surveying parents, so you could quibble about the validity of whatever it is the term measures. That quibble would make sense to me if the numbers weren’t so striking.

But they are striking. For example, among white, non-Hispanic children, 20% of poor children have “less than very good health,” compared with 6% of well-off children. The differences among black and Hispanic children are much more dramatic. Nearly 50% of poor, Hispanic children are not in optimal health.

What this means to me is fairly obvious, and it has been obvious for a long time — health status is linked to socioeconomic status. We shouldn’t need a study to tell us that, but it is helpful to have such a graphic demonstration of the effect. I’m sure it’s partly because poor families can’t afford health insurance. But that isn’t the whole story — all of these poorest children, the group with the most severe health problems, would qualify for Medicaid, even in the states with the most stringent requirements.

Thus whatever we do about healthcare reform will be closely linked to what is happening in the economy. Perhaps the best thing we can do for healthcare is reduce poverty.

Christopher Johnson is a pediatric intensive care physician and author of Your Critically Ill Child: Life and Death Choices Parents Must Face, How to Talk to Your Child’s Doctor: A Handbook for Parents, and How Your Child Heals: An Inside Look At Common Childhood Ailments.  He blogs at his self-titled site, Christopher Johnson, MD.

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  • http://twitter.com/drperipatetic Dr. Peripatetic

    I completely agree that poverty reduction would be the number one way to improve the health of many in this country and the rest of the world.  Insightful piece. Great to have that graphic to really see the severity of the situation.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VM5ZKYTEEAO4KZZG23W3HL2ERQ marc

    ‘Perhaps the best thing we can do for healthcare is reduce poverty’

    Wow – can’t believe that this is posed as a ‘perhaps’. You could usefully add ‘and relative poverty’ (ie the vast gap between rich and poor, which is a key indicator of health inequality).

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisJohnsonMD Christopher Johnson

    It’s often said that social science research amounts to quantifying the obvious. But it’s still useful to point these things out, I think.

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisJohnsonMD Christopher Johnson

    Besides the personal costs in human suffering, poor health has so many long-term economic negative consequences, both to the individual and to society. I think money spent on providing decent healthcare would have a net economic benefit down the road for all concerned. I wonder if anyone has taken a stab and quantifying that. It’s the true bottom line.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VM5ZKYTEEAO4KZZG23W3HL2ERQ marc

      ‘Besides the personal costs in human suffering, poor health has so many long-term economic negative consequences, both to the individual and to society. I think money spent on providing decent healthcare would have a net economic benefit down the road for all concerned.’

      Your problem is that this is profoundly anti-American and anti-capitalist. Even if you could prove to opponents’ satisfaction that reducing inequality and increasing health outcomes would lead to a large net gain in American economic productivity (and indeed there is compelling evidence) they would still prefer that the US underperforms, purely on ideological ‘free market’ terms.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rfdbbb Robert Bowman

    A pediatrician in Minnesota also discovered much the same for young children regarding hospital admissions due to poor oral health. This has been particularly tragic since many of these children could have been saved much discomfort and risk with simple applications of preventive varnish.

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