JAMA Study Takes Closer Look at Health of Latino Children

July 01, 2002

Although they are the largest racial/ethnic minority group of children in the United States, Latino children face many obstacles to health care, according to an article in the July 3 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The Latino Consortium, a group consisting of 13 expert panelists, identified priority areas and critical research and policy issues in Latino children's health. The panel was created by the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Center for Child Health Research, which is an operating branch of the AAP, the nation’s largest and most prestigious organization of pediatricians. Michael Weitzman, M.D., professor of Pediatrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, is the executive director of the Center, and served on the panel.

“This report is significant because it highlights the tremendous disparities in health that exist between Latino children and other groups of children in our nation,” Weitzman says. “Equally important, the report makes recommendations about how we should address these disparities.”

The Consortium identified several key factors that contribute to poor health outcomes for Latino children. It pointed to cases in which non-English speakers are arbitrarily excluded from enrolling in scientific studies. This practice leads to distortions in study results and to false claims that studies are ethnically or racially diverse when only black and white children are represented. The group also highlighted cases in which culture and language barriers prevent adequate access and care.

One out of every six children in the United States is Latino. Despite the increasing growth in the Latino population, many of the needs of Latino children are not being met by the health care system. Barriers to quality health care contribute to poor health outcomes in Latino children. For instance, Latino children have a disproportionately high risk of mental illness, developmental disabilities and dental health problems.

Glenn Flores, M.D., a pediatrician at Boston University School of Medicine and the chair of the 13-person consortium, says Latino children will suffer negative outcomes should healthcare policies remain unchanged. “[Latino children] are going to continue to receive an inferior quality of care,” Flores says. “They’ll continue to face substantial barriers to healthcare and they’ll have difficulty accessing the system - from obtaining health insurance to getting a regular doctor.”

The consortium – composed of 13 pediatricians, educators, public health experts, environmental health researchers, and other health professionals – found that:

  • Latinos are rarely included in child health research. Future studies should examine racial and ethnic differences in health and identify underlying causes.
  • Latino children are at high risk for behavioral and developmental disorders. Puerto Rican children have among the highest national prevalence of developmental disorders and functional limitations. Studies are needed to find out why.
  • There are many unanswered questions about the mental health needs and use of services for Latino children.
  • The prevalence of dental caries (tooth decay) is disproportionately higher for Latino children, but the reasons why are not clear and should be studied.
  • Latino boys are the most overweight and Latina girls are the second most overweight racial/ethnic groups of U.S. children. The authors note that more research is needed to find out why Latino children have such high risks of obesity and diabetes and what preventive interventions are most effective.
  • Puerto Rican children have the highest prevalence of active asthma (11 percent) of any U.S. ethnic/racial group of children, exceeding the prevalence for blacks (6 percent) and whites (3 percent). A half million Latino children have asthma; two-thirds of them are Puerto Rican.
  • The health of children of migrant Latino farm workers is particularly at risk because of their migratory status. Of the more than 1 million children who travel with their parents annually in pursuit of farm labor, 94 percent are Latino. These children receive inadequate preventive care, experience high rates of infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, parasites, and sexually transmitted diseases; have inadequate preparation for school entry and low rates of school completion.
  • Latinos are more likely to be uninsured (27 percent) than any other ethnic group of U.S. children.
  • Latino youth have the highest school dropout rate in the nation, 29 percent compared with 13 percent for blacks and 7 percent for whites.
  • Culture and language issues can profoundly affect Latino children's health and quality of care.
  • Latinos are under-represented at every level of the health care professions. Although 16 percent of children younger than 18 years are Latino, only 3 percent of medical school faculty, 5 percent of pediatricians, 2.8 percent of dentists and 2 percent of nurses are Latino.

"It is our hope and desire that these recommendations will influence policy makers to bring about crucial changes in the health research and care of Latino children,” says Weitzman, a nationally respected physician and researcher regarding children’s health. “If the approaches are helpful for that population, I think they will be beneficial for all children."

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