"Has she had any fevers?" I ask. I’m on my last appointment of the day at a clinic at St. Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury.
"She felt warm yesterday," her mother says.
"Did you check her temperature at home?"
"No, we don’t have a thermometer. That’s why we came in, to see if she has a fever."
I found myself suppressing a sigh. I now understood why this 6-month-old patient had had so many sick visits in her short life.
"You should get a thermometer the next time you go to the pharmacy. They have them for less than $10, and it will help you to take care of her when she’s sick."
"And where am I going to get $10?" her mother asked, looking me in the eye.
I found myself taken aback, and humbled.
Although this child had access to medical care, thanks to government help, her family lacked the resources to care for her safely at home.
The state of Connecticut needs to provide basic items like thermometers to families that can’t afford them. Thermometers are especially crucial when an infant is less than 2 months old, when any fever should prompt an emergency room visit.
The government of Finland does this. For nearly a century, the Finnish government has offered a box of essential items, including warm clothes, diapers, bathing essentials and blankets, to the family of each infant born in the country. The box itself has a mattress and can be used as a crib so that babies don’t sleep in beds with their parents - a risk factor for sudden infant death syndrome.
In recent months, several states have started distributing similar boxes to the families of newborns to encourage safe sleep and help families keep their children healthy. Nearly all of these boxes include thermometers.
Connecticut should join New Jersey, Ohio and Alabama in providing such boxes to the families of newborn infants.
To be sure, this would represent a new line item in the infinitely-contested state budget, at a time when the government is working to cut social spending. Ensuring that families have what is needed to keep their children healthy, however, is worth the cost.
The state spends $8.7 billion on health care yearly. Providing baby boxes for the 36,000-plus children born yearly in Connecticut would likely cost less than $4 million. Indeed, it could lead to some savings in direct health care costs, because families may have fewer urgent visits if they are able to check their infants’ temperatures at home.
The U.S. has long had an infant mortality rate higher than its peers. The rate in Connecticut of 4.7 infant deaths for every 1,000 births is below the national average of 5.8 per 1,000 births. But Connecticut’s rate is still much higher than in comparable nations.
What’s mind-boggling is that Americans spend more on health care than any other country, but have inferior outcomes. Analyses have shown that countries’ health outcomes are more strongly affected by social spending on programs that impact health than by spending on health care itself.
As I sat in the room with my patient, I found myself wishing I could do more to help her. I could reassure this mother that her child did not have a serious illness, but I could not help her get the one thing she needed to measure her baby’s temperature.
Experiences like this demonstrate that access to health care is not the only thing it takes to keep babies healthy. Giving families the tools they need to take care of their children themselves is an important part of health care.
Connecticut should establish itself as a leader among states by providing these resources to its citizens.
Dr. Rebecca Vitale of New Haven is a resident in Yale’s Internal Medicine-Pediatrics program.
The Courant invites writers younger than 30 to write essays of 650 words or less containing strong views. Please email your submission to freshtalk [at] courant (p) com , with your full name, hometown, daytime phone number, age and occupation (or your school’s name and your level in school). You can also fax op-eds to 860-520-6941.
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