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Health of Boston’s children lags others in Mass., survey suggests

Children in Boston lag behind their peers statewide on a wide variety of health measures, suffering higher rates of obesity, chronic medical conditions, and dental problems. They also have less access to health insurance and preventive care such as immunizations, according to survey results set to be released Thursday.

About 84 percent of Boston children were in excellent or very good general health in 2012, according to the survey of 2,100 Boston parents and caregivers. That was lower than the 89 percent of children statewide who were reported to be in superior health based on national survey data collected in 2011 and 2012.

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While the health differences are modest, the new survey of Boston families highlights specific barriers that make it tougher for the city’s residents to raise healthy children.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in a statement announcing the survey findings that the input received from parents “gave us a clearer picture of what we’re doing well and, more importantly, what challenges we have to address.” He planned to join Boston Public Health Commission officials in releasing the survey findings at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Martha Eliot Health Center in Jamaica Plain.

Children in Boston were less likely to head to a doctor’s office or outpatient hospital department when they were sick and more likely to be seen in a city-funded clinic or health center than children statewide. About 3.5 percent of Boston children are routinely taken by their parents to emergency rooms for mild injuries or illnesses compared with 1.5 percent statewide and 2.4 percent of children nationally.

Obesity is also a bigger problem in the city, affecting 40 percent of 11- to 17-year-olds in Boston compared with 29 percent in Massachusetts and 30 percent nationwide.

Of particular concern are the glaring health disparities between the 25 percent of families in the city who live in poverty — clustered mainly in North Dorchester and Roxbury — and the 37 percent who earned $75,000 or more in yearly income.

‘Our findings are eye-opening and call attention to the degree of hardship faced by many families.’

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For example, 89 percent of children living in families that made less than $25,000 a year were in good general health compared with nearly 99 percent of those from top-earning families. Those from wealthier families were also more likely to have healthy teeth and gums. About 70 percent of children from homes with the highest incomes were white or Asian.

“Our findings are eyeopening and call attention to the degree of hardship faced by many families — particularly those of color — trying to raise healthy children,” said Deborah Allen, director of the Health Commission’s bureau of child, adolescent, and family health.

The report found that 20 percent of black and Latino children had witnessed violence in their neighborhood compared with 5 percent of white children.

“Kids who are traumatized by violence can develop high blood pressure and may not make the best lifestyle choices when it comes to eating and physical activity,” said Dr. Shari Nethersole, a pediatrician and medical director for community health at Children’s Hospital who helped conduct and analyze the survey. Children’s provided the city with a $500,000 grant to fund the survey, as well as two future studies to evaluate children’s health in the city using health insurance records and geographical data on health factors such as crime rates and pollution levels.

Children in Boston did do a little better than those in the rest of the country when it came to health insurance: 96 percent of children who live in the city had coverage compared with less than 95 percent nationwide.

Statewide, 99 percent of children are insured.

The biggest obstacle parents named when it came to providing their children with the proper health care was not being able to take unpaid time off of work for medical appointments.

Nearly 11 percent reported that they encountered this problem, probably because they worked in low-paying service jobs that do not provide paid leave for family illness.

“I hope these findings really open the door for deep conversations about where we should be directing our resources,” Nethersole said. “Parents get a lot of blame, and we need to recognize that parenting is tough and there’s a need for better support.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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