Young campers' ability to learn to manage their chronic illness pleasant surprise to doctors

Children and young people who feel in control of their chronic illness are more likely to be able to manage their condition as adults, a study on campers suggests.

Youth who believe their health is controlled by chance or other people may be at increased risk

Children and teenagers who feel in control of their chronic illness are more likely to be able to manage their condition when they become adults, a study on campers suggests.

Researchers in the U.S. surveyed 163 kids aged six to 17 to understand how ready they were to transition to adult care and to take their medication as prescribed.

The investigators also asked about how well the campers felt they had control of their health, based on their answers to questions such as: "If my condition worsens, it is my behaviour which determines how soon I will feel better again," versus "As to my condition, what will be will be."

Those who felt confident about managing their own health and trusted their doctor were more likely to follow recommendations and learned self-management skills, the study's author's concluded in Thursday's issue of the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

"I'm actually surprised that children have this much insight at this age," study author Dr. Maria Ferris, a pediatrician at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  "I'm happily surprised."

Capable kids

In the study, 19 per cent of the campers were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, followed by cerebral palsy and kidney disease at nearly 9 per cent each.

Parents answered questions about health care use and missed school days.

"Parents need to learn to let go a bit more because their kids are more capable than we're giving them credit," Ferris suggested in an interview.

The average age of the campers in the study was 12.

Heather Tolensky's daughter, Hailey, just turned six.  Since Hailey's diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes at 17 months, her parents have vigilantly made sure she eats standard portions every two hours to try to keep her blood sugars consistent despite how growth spurts, stress and exercise can suddenly throw off her pattern.

She receives four insulin injections a day, including two at dinner.

"Camp is a struggle for us because I'm not prepared to put her in a bus and send her off," Tolensky said. "She needs a needle at lunch that a lot of places actually won't do."

Tolensky said she and her husband teach others how to test Hailey's blood sugar, but insulin can be more "dicey."

This week, Hailey is at a camp for children with medical needs in Toronto. It has a one on one staff to camper ratio and a nurse.

The study's authors said that by assessing whether young patients with chronic illnesses feel they have control over their health, doctors could identify those at risk for problems when they're receptive to help.

The researchers plan to repeat the study in a larger group. They acknowledged limitations such as the lack of objective measurements from medical and school records.