A health problem in NZ you don’t hear much about
A large proportion New Zealand’s under-twos are hospitalised annually with an acute lower respiratory illness, putting extreme strain on families and the health system. Associate Professor Karen McBride-Henry shares her research into this under-studied area and discusses what needs to be done to help families.
According to previous research, 10.3 percent of New Zealand children under two are hospitalised annually with a lower respiratory illness, with Māori and Pasifika children significantly more likely to be hospitalised.
As well as the long-term effect on children’s health, this repeated hospitalisation is putting huge strain on families and healthcare systems. There has been little work done focusing on the impact on parents and families when their child is repeatedly hospitalised for acute illnesses, so we wanted to investigate this serious issue further.
Our participants provided vivid descriptions of living with an acutely and repeatedly unwell child. These families felt powerless to help their children when they are acutely unwell and struggling to breathe. They described their experiences as heart-breaking, and they lived in fear because they couldn’t protect their children from getting sick.
Repeated hospitalisations also led to turmoil and disruption in family life, with family members unable to maintain regular employment because of their child’s health needs and anger and sadness when family members were separated due to hospitalisation.
Participants reported systematic issues that worsened the welfare of their family and their children. Poor housing – perhaps one of New Zealand’s biggest issues – was identified by most of our study participants as a huge problem. Houses were cold and damp, leading to frequent illnesses that parents or families could not control.
In many ways the situations did not improve when children were hospitalised for these illnesses. Study participants described hospitals as ‘in-hospitable’ spaces, where they remained at the mercy of hospital responses to them and their children. One father described sitting in the emergency department watching their child’s health deteriorate before their eyes because of slow response times at the hospital.
So what can be done to help our children?
Based on our research, we have several suggested changes in the health sphere. First, those in-hospitable spaces where needs are not recognised and voices of those cared for are actively silenced need to be addressed. Families should be active participants in health service planning. Healthcare providers should also implement culturally safe and responsive systems to meet the additional needs of these families.
On a policy level, it is crucial policy-makers are aware of the myriad issues facing these families and take steps at a local and national level to minimise the long-term impact of repeat hospitalisations. One way this could be achieved is through funding support. Currently families with chronically ill or disabled children are eligible for funding and similar funding could be made available to families where children undergo repeat hospitalisations.
More research also needs to be done into the burden of repeated hospitalisation on New Zealand families to ensure the health of everyone in New Zealand.
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