Objectives: To clarify the role of growth monitoring in primary school children, including obesity, and to examine issues that might impact on the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of such programmes.
Data sources: Electronic databases were searched up to July 2005. Experts in the field were also consulted.
Review methods: Data extraction and quality assessment were performed on studies meeting the review's inclusion criteria. The performance of growth monitoring to detect disorders of stature and obesity was evaluated against National Screening Committee (NSC) criteria.
Results: In the 31 studies that were included in the review, there were no controlled trials of the impact of growth monitoring and no studies of the diagnostic accuracy of different methods for growth monitoring. Analysis of the studies that presented a 'diagnostic yield' of growth monitoring suggested that one-off screening might identify between 1: 545 and 1: 1793 new cases of potentially treatable conditions. Economic modelling suggested that growth monitoring is associated with health improvements [ incremental cost per quality-adjusted life-year (QALY) of pound 9500] and indicated that monitoring was cost-effective 100% of the time over the given probability distributions for a willingness to pay threshold of pound 30,000 per QALY. Studies of obesity focused on the performance of body mass index against measures of body fat. A number of issues relating to human resources required for growth monitoring were identified, but data on attitudes to growth monitoring were extremely sparse. Preliminary findings from economic modelling suggested that primary prevention may be the most cost-effective approach to obesity management, but the model incorporated a great deal of uncertainty.
Conclusions: This review has indicated the potential utility and cost-effectiveness of growth monitoring in terms of increased detection of stature-related disorders. It has also pointed strongly to the need for further research. Growth monitoring does not currently meet all NSC criteria. However, it is questionable whether some of these criteria can be meaningfully applied to growth monitoring given that short stature is not a disease in itself, but is used as a marker for a range of pathologies and as an indicator of general health status. Identification of effective interventions for the treatment of obesity is likely to be considered a prerequisite to any move from monitoring to a screening programme designed to identify individual overweight and obese children. Similarly, further long-term studies of the predictors of obesity-related co-morbidities in adulthood are warranted. A cluster randomised trial comparing growth monitoring strategies with no growth monitoring in the general population would most reliably determine the clinical effectiveness of growth monitoring. Studies of diagnostic accuracy, alongside evidence of effective treatment strategies, could provide an alternative approach. In this context, careful consideration would need to be given to target conditions and intervention thresholds. Diagnostic accuracy studies would require long-term follow-up of both short and normal children to determine sensitivity and specificity of growth monitoring.