Determinants of health start in the womb, some hereditary and some environmental – maternal diet, smoking and stress for example. After birth, a whole load of other benefits and risks begin to impact on our children and their future well-being.
Those with a “pre-loaded” potential for ill health in later life can be helped – even high risks can be mitigated by a combination of healthy lifestyle choices and appropriate health care and support, throughout life. The BMA Board of Science publication Growing Up In The UK highlights some of the shortcomings of child health services and recommends a life course approach to improve the health of children in the UK.
A life course perspective offers a more joined-up approach with implications for long-term health gain and places emphasis on education and early intervention. Right at the heart of all the recommendations is education. Our children need health education in school from year one. This should be formally integrated into the national curricula across the UK and should cover the obvious aspects of healthy living, such as nutrition, activity and emotional wellbeing. It must also include information about the range of health services available, such as the local pharmacy, A&E, physiotherapy, speech therapy, psychology, social work and mental health services.
This will have multiple benefits – informing the children who is there to care for them, their families and, very importantly, their friends and classmates. It will help them understand and have empathy for each other when receiving extra help or support. It will help guide them in the future and into adulthood, enabling and empowering them in seeking to secure a healthy future for themselves.
We know that, in order to influence risks to our children and young people, we need to equip them with knowledge BEFORE exposure to risk happens.
So what the BMA is proposing is a proactive and holistic approach to health and wellbeing. Valuing oneself, one’s family, peers and also knowing who is there to help when needed. Our children and young adults – the future users and providers of the UK health service – need the “three Es” of health as part of their learning at school, so that they can achieve healthy lives and use our services effectively:
• Education – to provide information about the importance of diet and activity on health.
• Empowerment – to build knowledge about how to undertake appropriate self care and responsible and effective use of health services.
• Empathy – to help communities understand and care for each other.
• Dr Sally Winning is deputy chairman of BMA Scotland