Ingrid Wolfe talks to the BNC about politicians and children's health

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I’m a children’s doctor, and I work in Evelina London Children’s Hospital and in King’s College London University. I look after populations of children, and research how to improve health and healthcare for children. I teach students and other doctors, and do a lot of writing and talking about children’s health. I want the work I do to make a difference so do a lot to try to influence policy makers and policiticians. Accountability is really vital!


Who or what inspired you to take your job, and what do you think politicians should prioritise under the topic of children's health?
skillful_passionfruit, Graveney School

What an interesting question skillful_passionfruit. A lot of different things made me interested in children’s health. One of the main things is that I think it’s unfair that children don’t get as much attention as they deserve in the way government and the NHS work, so I wanted to try to help. Children’s health is of course important, and I wanted to spend my working life on something that matters. Besides, I think it’s really interesting, and I’m lucky that my work keeps me energised. I really like the people I get to work with in child health, and that’s another thing that inspired me. There are so many amazing people who are doing things to make children’s health and lives better, and I get to learn from watching them. That’s another really a great part of my job.

What do I think politicians should prioritise in children’s health? Politicians have such huge power to make children’s lives better, so I wish they would use their power more effectively. The first thing I think they should do is tackle child poverty. There’s really no good reason why so many children are poor. And the gap between rich and poor children is so wide, and that’s very unfair. Both poverty and inequalities make a huge difference to health, and so much that happens in a child’s life. So that’s the top priority. After that, schools should have a lot more attention and money. Education is a really important part of children’s health. I think teachers do a vital job, just as important as nurses and doctors. So, I think politicians should pay teachers and nurses more to make sure we have enough of them, and they are properly valued. In all these areas there are good examples our politicians could follow. Other countries have got a lot of these things right, and their children benefit – I think children in the UK should too.


What do I think politicians should prioritise in children’s health? Politicians have such huge power to make children’s lives better, so I wish they would use their power more effectively. The first thing I think they should do is tackle child poverty. There’s really no good reason why so many children are poor

Dr. Ingrid Wolfe


What is something you have always wanted in a children's hospital but MPs do not agree on?
generous_speech, Michael Faraday School

Thanks for that question generous_speech, it’s something I’ve thought a lot about actually. Children’s hospitals are really important, but they’re not the place where most children’s healthcare happens. Most children’s healthcare happens in GP practices, and outside of hospitals. So I’d like to see a lot more attention paid to improving that part of children’s healthcare. Now specifically relating to hospitals, to answer your question directly, I’d like hospitals to work on problems that affect children before they get to hospital! That’s a tricky area, but more hospitals (including my own, luckily) are doing more to think about the whole population and not just the patients who come through their doors. MPs do agree about some parts of this, but it’s usually about older people and the way that healthcare and social care work together (or don’t, which is usually the problem). But that’s not what matters most for children’s health. For children, what matters in healthcare is how well GPs and hospitals are coordinated, and how well schools and the NHS work together. And those things don’t usually capture politicians attention quite so much – but they should!


In your job do you always have to keep your promises?
impartial_shark, Boutcher C of E Primary School

Well impartial_shark, that’s such a good question. I think we should all do our best to keep our promises! I know that’s an easy answer, and I think you wanted me to focus on my job. OK. So, the short answer is that it depends on what you mean. Doctors have a responsibility to their patients. Which is I guess what you might mean about keeping promises. There are lots of ways that I try to make sure I always do my best, like making sure I keep up with my learning, keeping track of what I do and how well I do it. And then there are lots of ways the NHS and the hospital where I work keeps an eye on me too, and there’s the General Medical Council which checks all doctors and makes sure they’re keeping up to date.

There’s another way of thinking about keeping promises that matters a lot in my job. Part of my job is about speaking up about things that matter for children’s health. So I use my knowledge and experience to try to help politicians keep their promises. That’s hard sometimes, but a really important part of doctors’ jobs. How can we help politicians to keep their promises? Partly through information – showing them and everyone what’s going on in children’s health. That also means testing solutions to problems, and not just telling everyone about what’s wrong all the time. That part is harder, but I’m trying to do my bit there too. Part of my job is testing new types of healthcare for children, and I hope the evidence helps to improve things for children.


How can we help politicians to keep their promises? Partly through information – showing them and everyone what’s going on... that also means testing solutions to problems, and not just telling everyone about what’s wrong all the time.

Dr Ingrid Wolfe


Do you think its fair that people only get to vote at 18?
flowing_situation, Birchwood C of E Primary School

No, I do not! I think children have a really important voice and need to have a say in how the future works out. After all it’s children who will live in the future world they’re shaping, long after the older people are gone. Also, I think adults often under-estimate how informed and thoughtful children are. Finally, I think it’s strange the way the law assumes there’s an immediate change from 17 years and 364 days old, to 18 years old. Sometimes people are much more mature before that, and sometimes they’re much less mature long after 18 too! I’m not sure how best to decide on when someone is mature enough to vote. But those sorts of things have been handled in the health service, for example, where there’s flexibility in the age when children can decide things for themselves. Also there’s been a suggestion that parents should have an extra vote which they can use specifically to focus on what their children need. What do you think about those ideas, flowing_situation?


Can you find one thing you agree with in Dr. Wolfe's answers?

Can you find one thing you'd like to know more about?

Can you think of a further question to ask Dr. Wolfe?

Add to the comments below!

Comments (13)

  • Faringdon-logo-250x250.jpg magnificent_vegetable | Faringdon Community College
    28 Jan 2020

    You said that you disagreed with NHS policies about children, If that is the case what, if given the chance would you change about the way our NHS is run?

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    1. image001.jpg EXPERT: Ingrid Wolfe
      magnificent_vegetable's comment 23 Feb 2020

      What an exciting question! If I was given the chance to change the way our NHS is run, there are several things I would do.

      First I'd change the way the money is spent. It's true there isn't enough money, but one reason is because too much money is spent in trying to turn the NHS into a system that works like a market, for example with competition. There are lots of reasons why this doesn't work in healthcare. One reason is that cooperation is what's needed for patients to get the best care. Competition is the opposite. Imagine if two hospitals were close to eachother, and one specialised in one part of a child, and the other specialised in another part of a child. That doesn't really make much sense for the child! So the system should encourage them to cooperate, for the benefit of the child. Also, the market system works well for things like bread or fruit. But not very well for things like health. Why? Well for one thing, you as the person who eats the food knows what sort of bread or fruit you want, so you can decide what to buy (so long as you can afford it, of course). But with health, although everyone knows what they want to achieve - to be healthier, to have healthcare when they need it, where they need it, and quickly and easily, it's much more difficult to know exactly *how* to achieve those things. If services compete for "customers", how do you know which services are better? It's *really* hard to measure quality in a fair and accurate way. It's much more difficult than bread of fruit, for sure.

      Second, I'd improve the way we make decisions. Evidence is really important to make sure we do the right things for the patients we look after. That is obvious, right? But it's really difficult to make sure that proper evidence is used to make decisions about big questions like how we organise services, how we fund them, how many doctors and nurses we need. Those are such important questions, but there isn't a lot of evidence. There's loads of evidence about medicines, but not so much about those bigger questions. Doesn't make much sense to me, but that's the way it is. At the moment big things like how we organise healthcare is based on this: "well that's always the way it's been done here". Which might be the right thing to do, but it isn't a good enough reason in my opinion. So I think we need more research into those problems, and we need a better system to make sure evidence is used for making decisions about those big things.

      Finally, I'd try to make sure that the way the NHS works is more closely matched to the way children's lives actually happen. So I'd make sure that physical health and mental health are together. And preventing health problems should become much more important, just like treating problems once they happen. So when politicians say the NHS should be a health service and not just a sickness service, I agree, but then they need to do the right things to make it happen!

      Reply to this comment
  • Upton-Cross-logo-250x250.jpg balanced_chemistry | Upton Cross Primary School
    28 Jan 2020

    What made you want to bea children doctor and when did you start this operation?

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    1. image001.jpg EXPERT: Ingrid Wolfe
      balanced_chemistry's comment 23 Feb 2020

      Thanks for that question balanced_chemistry. I wanted to be a doctor from when I was very little - about 4 years old! I have no idea really why, but I became fascinated with how the body works, why it goes wrong sometimes, and I wanted to help people. My grandmother was a nurse, and maybe that's where it came from. I'm not sure. As for being a children's doctor, I decided that much later. That happened in stages. First I really liked paediatrics when I was a medical student. I liked spending time with children, I liked that children's health is so diverse and keeps changing all the time. I liked the way children's doctors work, and I thought they were really nice to work with. Then I tried it out for a while, once I became a doctor. And that convinced me. I love it, and am really happy with my choice.

      Reply to this comment
  • Michael-Faraday-logo-250x250.jpg nice_fruit | Michael Faraday School
    29 Jan 2020

    What if the doctors don’t agree with you decision you make? And what will you do to make them listen to you opinion?

    Reply to this comment
    1. image001.jpg EXPERT: Ingrid Wolfe
      nice_fruit's comment 23 Feb 2020

      That's a really hard question! Actually that happens a lot. People disagree about lots of things, that's part of the world, and it makes things interesting too. Disagreements are important, I think. They help people to think about things deeply. I find that my thinking gets much better if someone disagrees with me, challenges me, it makes me improve my thinking, and sharpens my arguments. Sometimes they change my mind, and sometimes I change theirs. The important thing is to be flexible, and to listen to arguments and evidence, and to make a decision that is as well informed as possible.

      Reply to this comment
  • Richmond-Hill-logo-250x250.jpg determined_artic_fox | Richmond Hill Academy
    31 Jan 2020

    Do you think politicians job should be making sure citizens or children are safe and living a healthy lifestyle?

    Reply to this comment
    1. image001.jpg EXPERT: Ingrid Wolfe
      determined_artic_fox's comment 23 Feb 2020

      Yes I do. Politicians have so much power over the world we live in, and can help shape the conditions that affect health, and they affect the way people make decisions about their health and safety. Two good examples:

      First, imagine if unhealthy food was really cheap, easily available, and highly promoted with advertising and free toys. What do you think people would do? The answer is that more people choose the unhealthy food. Science has shown this, again and again. And it makes sense, right? Politicians can change those things, and slowly it's starting to happen. For example, the sugar tax. Much more needs to happen.

      Another example. Seatbelts in cars. When I was born there weren't seat belts in back seats of cars. Can you imagine!? Then a law came in to change that. At first lots of people didn't like that. They thought the government shouldn't interfere, that they could decide for themselves. But because it was the law people had to do it. And then what happened? Slowly people got used to it, and now it's totally normal. And what else happened? Lives were saved. Lots of children who would have died in car accidents, no longer did. Instead of being flung out of the windscreen and onto the pavement (which is what used to happen) many more were kept safe by seatbelts.

      So, yes I do think that politicians have a responsibility to help keep people healthy and safe.

      Reply to this comment
  • Richmond-Hill-logo-250x250.jpg protective_orange | Richmond Hill Academy
    07 Feb 2020

    You said that you disagreed with NHS policies about children, If that is the case what, if given the chance would you change about the way our NHS is run? What made you want to bea children doctor and when did you start this operation?What if the doctors don’t agree with you decision you make? And what will you do to make them listen to you opinion?What if the doctors don’t agree with you decision you make? And what will you do to make them listen to you opinion?Do you think politicians job should be making sure citizens or children are safe and living a healthy lifestyle?

    Reply to this comment
    1. image001.jpg EXPERT: Ingrid Wolfe
      protective_orange's comment 23 Feb 2020

      Thank you protective_orange. I've replied to each student's comments individually. I hope they enjoy this discussion (I am!)

      Reply to this comment
  • John-Ray-logo-250x250.jpg modest_donkey | John Ray Junior School
    11 Feb 2020

    What do you think could be improved by the government for children’s, adult’s and the elderly’s health?

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    1. image001.jpg EXPERT: Ingrid Wolfe
      modest_donkey's comment 23 Feb 2020

      That's a really good question, thank you. Three main things:

      First, I'd like there to be fairness between children, adults, and the elderly. At the moment children lose out, and that's not fair. Have you heard about the "triple lock" on pensions? That protects money for the elderly. Quite right. But there isn't a similar thing for child benefits. In fact it's the opposite. Child benefits have been cut - a lot.

      Second, prevention should matter much more. Preventing bad health, promoting good health. Those things aren't very glamorous, and although the government talks about them, they don't focus on those things as much as they should. I understand why - it's because money is tight, and you really have to deal with urgent problems when people are sick. But if you don't start dealing with things before they happen, and improve health for people, then the sickness problem just grows and grows and it becomes impossible to manage.

      Finally, related to disease prevention, the government should do a better job to improve things outside the NHS that matter for health. For example the environment. The climate crisis is really important for health. It's called an emergency for good reasons. I'm very encouraged by how serious children and young people are about the climate crisis. The economy too, money should be shared more fairly between people because we know that would help everyone to have better health and lives. Both the environment and the economy are important, and they're both very influenced by the way government interacts with big businesses. And that needs to change. I think the people we elect to government should make the decisions, and they shouldn't be so influenced by businesses (because usually businesses are more interested in making money than they are about what's good for people.)

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