Many parents don't understand that child obesity needs medical intervention

September 8, 2011

More than 90% of responding parents said that they would seek medical attention for a condition that would limit their child?s ability to play, reduce life expectancy, or increase future health care costs. Yet, only just more than half said they would seek medical attention for overweight or obesity?even though it?s been proven that obesity can cause those problems and more. Parents also had some surprising answers when asked which would be preferable: removal of the obese child from the home or bariatric surgery.

More than 90% of responding parents said that they would seek medical attention for a condition that would limit their child’s ability to play, reduce life expectancy, or increase future health care costs, but a recent survey showed that barely half (54%) would consider it very important to seek medical attention for a child who is overweight or obese, even though these conditions are associated with all these problems.

Pediatricians have an important role to play in educating parents on the health consequences of childhood obesity, according to researchers. “Obese children have both immediate and future health problems, including hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes,” said Sarah Hampl, MD, medical director of Weight Management Services at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, the survey sponsor.

The survey included a national sample of 2,179 American adults, including 728 parents. More than 80% of parents said it was “very important” to get medical care for a child with symptoms of diabetes or asthma, and more than 70% said they would seek medical attention for a child with a learning disability. Yet, the percentage of parents who said that seeking medical care for overweight children was “very important” was similar to that of parents who would seek medical help for behavioral problems (57%), attention problems (52%), or skin problems (53%).

Approximately 17% of US children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 19 years are obese as measured by a body mass index (BMI) above the 95th percentile, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and obesity rates have tripled in the last 30 years. About one-third of children and teens have a BMI above the 85th percentile, the definition for overweight.

Parents taking the survey said they believed they were best suited to prevent obesity in their children (80%), and 83% said that they look to schools for assistance in combating obesity by requiring physical education (92%), providing healthy meals (87%), and mandating recess time in elementary school (89%). More than 90% would take their child to see a pediatrician for weight-related issues if a teacher said their child had a serious health condition.

About half of parents indicated support for outpatient groups (51%) or weight-loss camps (48%) for overweight children, whereas approximately one-quarter (27%) said that they would consider inpatient treatment, and 16% supported using medication.

This summer, Lindsey Murtagh, JD, MPH, and David Ludwig, MD, PhD, sparked active discussion in the press and among pediatricians and others who work with morbidly obese children when they suggested recently that state custody of children with “life-threatening obesity” (those with a BMI above the 99th percentile) may be warranted under child abuse statutes in certain situations and preferred to invasive surgery.

Parents in the Children’s Mercy survey slightly favored removal from the home to weight loss surgery (6% and 5%, respectively), and parents were more open to both extreme interventions than nonparents, of whom just 4% supported removal and 3% supported surgery.

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