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Well-child visits rise, but disparities remain



Adherence to well-child visits in the United States increased overall over a 10-year period, but a gap of up to 20% persisted between the highest and lowest adherence groups, reflecting disparities by race and ethnicity, poverty level, geography, and insurance status.

Well-child visits are recommended to provide children with preventive health and development services, ensure immunizations, and allow parents to discuss health concerns, wrote Salam Abdus, PhD, and Thomas M. Selden, PhD, of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, Md.

“We know from prior studies that as of 2008, well-child visits were trending upward, but often fell short of recommendations among key socioeconomic groups,” they wrote.

To examine recent trends in well-child visits, the researchers conducted a cross-sectional study of data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) on children aged 0 to 18 years. The findings were published in JAMA Pediatrics.

The study population included 19,018 children in 2006 and 2007 and 17,533 children in 2016 and 2017.

Adherence was defined as the ratio of reported well-child visits divided by the recommended number of visits in a calendar year.

Overall, the mean adherence increased from 47.9% in 2006-2007 to 62.3% in 2016-2017.

However, significant gaps persisted across race and ethnicity. Notably, adherence in the Hispanic population increased by nearly 22% between the study dates, compared to a 15.3% increase among White non-Hispanic children. However, Hispanic children still trailed White children overall in 2016-2017 (58% vs. 67.8%).

The smallest increase in adherence occurred among Black non-Hispanic children (5.6%) which further widened the gap between Black and White non-Hispanic children in 2016-2017 (52.5% vs. 67.8%).

Adherence rates increased similarly for children with public and private insurance (15.5% and 13.9%, respectively), but the adherence rates for uninsured children remained stable. Adherence in 2016-2017 for children with private, public, and no insurance were 66.3%, 58.7%, and 31.1%.

Also, despite overall increases in adherence across regions, a gap of more than 20% separated the region with the highest adherence (Northeast) from the lowest (West) in both the 2006-2007 and 2016-2017 periods (69.3% vs. 38.4%, and 79.3% vs. 55.2%, respectively).

The findings show an increase in well-child visits that spanned a time period of increased recommendations, economic changes, and the impact of the Affordable Care Act, but unaddressed disparities remain, the researchers noted.

Reducing disparities and improving adherence, “will require the combined efforts of researchers, policymakers, and clinicians to improve our understanding of adherence, to implement policies improving access to care, and to increase health care professional engagement with disadvantaged communities,” they concluded.

Overall increases are encouraging, but barriers need attention

“Demographic data are critical to determine which groups of children need the most support for recommended well child care,” Susan Boulter, MD, of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, Hanover, N.H., said in an interview. In the current study, “it was encouraging to see how either public or private insurance significantly increased the percentage of children receiving well child care,” she said.

The level of increased adherence to AAP-recommended guidelines for well-child visits was surprising, said Dr. Boulter. The overall increase is likely attributable in part to the increased coverage for well-child visits in the wake of the Affordable Care Act, as the study authors mention, she said.

“The gains experienced by Hispanic families were especially encouraging,” she added.

However, ongoing barriers to well-child care include “lack of adequate provider numbers and mix, transportation difficulties for patients, and lack of child care and time away from work for parents so they can complete the recommended well child visit schedule,” Dr. Boulter noted. “Provider schedules and locations of care should be improved so families would have easier access. Also, social media should have more positive well-child messages to counteract the negative messaging.”

More research is needed to examine the impact of COVID-19 on well-child visits, Dr. Boulter emphasized. “Most likely, the percentages in all groups will have changed since COVID-19 has impacted office practices,” she said. “Anxiety about COVID-19 transmissibility in the pediatric office decreased routine office visits, and skepticism about vaccines, including vaccine refusal, has significantly changed the percentage of children who have received the AAP recommended vaccines,” she explained. Ideally, the study authors will review the MEPS data again to examine changes since the COVID-19 pandemic began, she told this news organization.

The study received no outside funding. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose. Dr. Boulter had no financial conflicts to disclose and serves on the editorial advisory board of Pediatric News.

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