Chris Dixon reports on “How To Improve Children’s Health: Putting Research Into Practice”



Today, children and young people in Britain find themselves disproportionately disadvantaged in a climate of austerity, with substantial cuts to the services from which they benefit most. They experience higher levels of mortality, morbidity, and social inequality relative to those of many other OECD member countries. Young children are most vulnerable to the deleterious effects of ill health and yet also most dependent on others to provide and care for them. Nevertheless, there is hope: we know, for instance, that child poverty is policy responsive and that preventative measures early on improve outcomes and yield savings later down the line.

‘Improving Children’s Health: Putting Research into Practice’ saw medical practitioners, charity workers, academics, and other children’s health advocates meet at Cumberland Lodge to discuss topics including relationship breakdown, poverty, physical activity, and play. Delegates learned of the increasingly stark outlook for child health in 21st century Britain: slumping rates of physical activity, limited opportunities for play, increasing consumption of high-sugar foods, poor quality school meals, and stress as a result of family fission.

A key theme of the conference, however, centered on the role of evidence and the multitude of barriers to its implementation by local and national government. Social life is complex and there are no silver bullets, but we know enough of the problems to turn our focus to the solutions. A growing repertoire of methodologically rigorous interventions is needed to try to reduce social, and therefore health, inequalities for current and subsequent generations. The area of early child development is replete with examples of successful evidence-based and cost-effective interventions, so why do our children and young people continue to find themselves in such a precarious position?

What I find frustrating is the awkward marriage between evidence-driven research and belief-driven politics. The needs of children and young people are unfaltering, whereas political administrations come and go. The length of time required to undertake good quality research such as randomised controlled trials may take more than the length of a political administration, but what of politicians seeking a quick fix? Public opinion and political events often have a larger-than-expected role to play, with one survey finding that researchers and academics were judged to be ‘very important’ by only 15% of policymakers. Given that research is our only sure-fire way of ensuring efficacy in intervention, this is a deeply worrying statistic.

But there need not be an impasse between research and politics. It is incumbent upon academics to make their research interpretable and accessible, rather than letting it percolate loudly and brashly through tabloid newspapers. Reducing the length of summary reports and providing explanations for the phenomena described are two suggested ways of improving the likelihood of research being understood and taken seriously.

For me, it appears that the logical conclusion is staring us in the face: if we accept that the health of our children and young people is important, and if we already know what works to reduce negative outcomes, we are already half way there. The next step is to galvanise policymakers and other stakeholders and convince them to engage with the evidence base for the sake of not only this generation, but all others to follow.