Viewpoint: NHS must raise awareness of childhood constipation

Childhood continence charity, ERIC (Education and Resources for Improving Childhood Continence) has launched a campaign warning parents about constipation. ERIC director Jenny Perez writes for GPonline about how services need to improve.

ERIC director Jenny Perez: awareness of effects of constipation must improve
ERIC director Jenny Perez: awareness of effects of constipation must improve

This month ERIC (Education and Resources for Improving Childhood Continence) has launched a national awareness campaign called ‘Let’s Talk about Poo’, to alert parents to the early signs and symptoms of childhood constipation. 

Parents may delay seeking help and advice for the problem for a number of reasons. They may not recognise the symptoms, but equally they may fear a negative response from healthcare professionals or be embarrassed.

Poster campaign

As part of the campaign, posters are being put up in GP practices and health centres to let parents know that if their child is soiling themselves, it could indicate they are suffering from constipation. New resources are also available to doctors, nurses and other health professionals, to help them explain to parents what their child’s bowel movements could mean and how to access the right kind of treatment and support. These include a wall chart and a questionnaire which should be filled in with the child.

The trigger for launching this campaign is that constipation is a common but often hidden condition that affects between 5-30% of children. There are a shocking 13,000 emergency hospital admissions for childhood constipation every year in England alone - that means around 35 children and young people are admitted to hospital every day suffering because of the symptoms of constipation, such as severe abdominal pain.

Ineffective treatment

Furthermore children suffering from constipation can spend years being treated ineffectively and being subject to inappropriate investigations. The aim of the 2010 NICE guidance on constipation in children and young people is to provide an evidence based framework that standardises treatments and gives guidance the use of invasive procedures and investigations.

The impact of ongoing constipation and soiling can be devastating for children and their families, leading to social isolation, low self esteem and feelings of despair. We need to ensure that more children receive early diagnosis and intervention to treat their constipation at a primary care level; this will help to prevent the problem becoming chronic and leading to unnecessary hospital admissions and poor quality of life.

There is evidence that services for children with continence problems are very variable across the UK and often not comprehensive or properly integrated. As the NHS is being radically reformed and the 'any qualified provider' policy implemented, it is essential that there is consistent and proper guidance available to aid the commissioning of this often neglected area of child health.

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