Letters from Maine

Sacred cows


Within the academic pediatric community, there is little argument that the concepts “evidence based” and “early intervention” are gold standards against which we must measure our efforts.

It should be obvious to everyone that if we can intervene early in a child’s developmental trajectory, our chances of affecting his/her outcome are improved. And the earlier the better. If we aren’t supremely committed to prevention, then what sets pediatrics apart from the other specialties?

Likewise, if we aren’t willing to systematically measure our efforts at improving the health of our patients, we run the risk of simply spinning our wheels and even worse, squandering our patients’ time and their parents’ energies. However, a recent article in Pediatrics and a companion commentary suggest that we need to be more careful as we interpret the buzz that surrounds the terms “early intervention” and “evidence based.”

In their one-sentence conclusion of a paper reviewing 48 studies of early intervention in early childhood development, the authors observe, “Although several interventions resulted in improved child development outcomes age 0 to 3 years, comparison across studies and interventions is limited by the use of different outcome measures, time of evaluation, and variability of results” (“Primary Care Interventions for Early Childhood Development: A Systematic Review,” Peacock-Chambers et al. Pediatrics. 2017, Nov 14. doi: 10.1542/peds.2017-1661). Unless you are looking for another reason to slip further into an abyss of despair, I urge that you skip reading the details of the Peacock-Chambers paper and turn instead to Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff’s excellent commentary (“Rethinking the Definition of Evidence-Based Interventions to Promote Early Child Development,” Pediatrics. 2017, Dec. doi: 10.1542/peds.2017-3136).

Dr. Shonkoff observes that there is ample evidence to support the general concept of early intervention as it relates to childhood development. However, he acknowledges that the improvements observed generally have been small. And there has been little success in scaling these few successes to larger populations. It would seem that the sacred cow of early intervention remains standing, albeit on somewhat shaky legs.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

However, when it comes to the usefulness of an evidence-based yardstick, Dr. Shonkoff is understandably less reassuring. The results of the Peacock-Chambers paper alone should give us pause rather than our blindly accepting results of a trial just because it has appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. As Peacock-Cambers et al. remind us, comparing interventions that differ in outcomes measured and time sequences is difficult, if not impossible.

Dr. Shonkoff points out that an obsession with statistical significance often has blinded some of us to the importance of the magnitude of (or the lack of) impact when interpreting studies of early intervention. As a result, we may have failed to realize how far research in early childhood development has fallen behind the other fields of biomedical research such as cancer, HIV, and AIDS. His plea is that we begin to leverage our successes in fields such as molecular biology, epigenetics, and neuroscience when designing future studies of early childhood development. He asserts that this kind of basic science – in concert with “on-the-ground experience” (that’s you and me) and “authentic parental engagement” – is more likely to result in greater scalable impact for our patients threatened by developmental delays.

It is refreshing and encouraging reading a critical consideration of the evidence-based sacred cow. Evidence can be viewed from a variety of perspectives. If we continue to filter all of our observations through a statistical significance filter, we run the risk of missing both the forest and the trees.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at pdnews@frontlinemedcom.com.

Next Article: