Countless studies have shown that the experiences of childhood have a profound impact on an individual’s lifelong health and success. Research has also shown that preventative care is one of the most successful strategies for improving the long-term health outcomes for patients and reducing overall healthcare costs. When looking at these two facts side-by-side, it becomes apparent that preventative care in a child’s formative years can have a critical influence on their entire life.
Healthy Food, Healthy Life
Proper nutrition is an essential part of fueling the almost unbelievable amount of growth and development experienced in early childhood. A child’s need for a nutritious diet begins even before birth. The importance of prenatal nutrition can be seen, in part, through the success of Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). WIC is a federally funded program that was created in 1972 to provide supplemental nutritious food, nutrition education, and healthcare referrals to women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, as well as children up to age five. Participation in WIC has been shown to decrease infant mortality rates, reduce cases of low infant birth weight, and incidents of premature birth. Along with the long-term health benefits for the mother and baby, WIC has been shown to be a positive factor in controlling healthcare costs. A USDA report showed that for every $1 spent on WIC benefits for expectant mothers who were also enrolled in Medicaid, the healthcare cost savings were up to $3.13 in just the first 60 days after birth.
The need for proper nutrition continues throughout a child’s formative years. Access to healthy foods is not only linked to a healthy body weight in childhood, the eating habits developed as a child have a long-term impact on healthy eating habits that individuals maintain as adults. Proper nutrition has also been shown to lower the risk of individuals developing a wide variety of chronic illnesses, and even improve a child’s chances of success in school.
Primary Care Is Preventative Medicine
Along with proper nutrition, access to primary healthcare during childhood is a building block of a healthy adult life. Children who have regular access to medical care, particularly through maintaining health insurance coverage, show a wide variety of benefits in both childhood and in their later life. The immediate benefits include lower rates of obesity, fewer preventable hospitalizations, few cases of substance abuse, and a reduced likelihood of eating disorders. Long-term positive outcomes have also been linked to individuals having access to medical insurance in childhood. One study showed that individuals who qualified for Medicaid coverage as young children exhibited lower rates of high-blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes as adults, as compared to children who did not have medical insurance. In addition to health benefits, children who have access to medical coverage have been shown to have improved education and economic opportunities, including increased chances of graduating high school.
Just over half of the children in the United States have access to medical care through private medical insurance, and an additional 40% are insured through government-sponsored programs such as Medicaid and The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP); roughly 5% of children in America are uninsured. While Medicaid has been providing low-income children with medical insurance for over fifty years, CHIP is comparatively new. The program was created as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 and was designed to provide access to medical care for low-income children who do not qualify for Medicaid, but for who private insurance is financially prohibitive. The legislation that governs CHIP has been renewed multiple times since its initial creation and is once again in need of a congressional extension. As part of the current renewal process, Congress recently authorized a $2.85 billion funding bridge to finance the program until March 31, 2018. This was done to ensure that the program can continue to function without interruption while details of a proposed five-year extension are negotiated in Washington DC.
Mental Health for Life
In addition to primary care, access to appropriate mental health resources during childhood and adolescence are critical for the long-term positive outcome of individuals experiencing mental health challenges. In 1999, the US Department of Health and Human Services issued a report detailing many of the mental health challenges in the United States at the time. The report included the sobering information that while about 20% of children in the US suffered from at least one diagnosable mental disorder, less than 1 out of 4 of the affected children received any form of treatment. This information is deeply concerning because untreated mental health disorders in children and adolescents can potentially lead to lifelong issues that include difficulty in managing personal relationships, maintaining steady employment, or even successfully completing schooling. In addition to these personal challenges, studies have shown that adolescents with untreated mental health conditions are likely to have higher health care costs as adults, as compared to the general population.
One growing strategy to improve mental health access for children and adolescence is to partner with primary care practitioners (PCP). In some areas, doctors who traditionally focus on primary care are undergoing additional training to learn to effectively screen their regular patients for a wide variety of mental health conditions. After any potential concerns have been identified, the PCP can then determine if early intervention options can be handled in their office or if a referral to specialized services is required. The hope is that by screening children for mental health conditions early and often, the chances are increased that any concerns can be addressed early to reduce the chances of the lifelong negative side effects that are associated with mental illness.
The foundations of a healthy and productive adult life are created in childhood and adolescence. When children have access to necessary resources such as healthy food, primary medical care, and appropriate mental health resources, they have the best chance of living a healthy and productive life as adults.