Fall 2013

Tipping the Scales

Letters sent home to parents about their overweight kids prove controversial

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Most of us who attended public school can remember being checked periodically for height, weight, vision and hearing acuity. Public health screenings of this kind have been going on for the past 100 years or more, often accompanied by vaccinations and letters sent home to parents if a problem is found.

Massachusetts, which has had a weight-screening program since 2009, is one of 21 states that have put statutes or advisories in place mandating that public schools collect height, weight and/or BMI (body-mass index) information about students. Some states further require that parents receive confidential letters informing them of the test results and advising that they discuss the findings with their child’s doctor.

A number of parents have objected to the so-called “fat letters,” saying they are an intrusion into family matters. In Massachusetts, where parents are currently sent letters for students in grades one, four, seven and 10, the state public Health Department is debating a possible repeal of the notification process.

That would be a grave mistake, in the view of Michael Flaherty, a pediatric resident physician at Baystate Medical Center, a Tufts affiliate in Springfield, Mass., and a clinical associate at the medical school. “The growing number of children and adolescents seen day in and day out in our clinics with hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes and musculoskeletal issues secondary to weight do not lie,” he said.

Flaherty outlined his views in a recent opinion piece in the journal Pediatrics. About 17 percent of U.S. teens and children are obese, three times the number in 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in three is considered either overweight or obese.

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