COVID-19 has prompted many changes in pediatric health care. They say necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes, necessity is the motivator for the long-past-due adoption of a previous invention, such as telemedicine for minor illnesses. And sometimes necessity reminds us about what is really important in a world of high technology.
Unlike our nearly overwhelmed internal medicine, ED, and family physician colleagues, many pediatricians are in a lull that threatens the financial viability of our practices. We are postponing annual well visits. We have fewer sick visits and hospitalizations since respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza also have been reduced by social distancing. Parents are avoiding the risk of contagion in the waiting room and not bringing their children in for minor complaints. There is more telemedicine – a welcome change in financing and practice whose time has come, but was being delayed by lack of insurance coverage.
Technology has allowed clinicians to respond to the pandemic in ways that would not have been possible a few years ago. Online tools, such as subscription email lists, webinars, and electronic medical news services, provide updates when the information changes weekly on the virus’s contagiousness, asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission, prevalence, the effectiveness of masks, and experimental treatment options. These changes have been so fast that many journal articles based on data from China were obsolete and contradicted before they appeared in print.
However, technology only helped us to more effectively do what we needed to do in the first place – come together in a world of physical distancing and work toward common goals. In many hospitals, pediatric wards were emptied by reduced RSV admissions and postponed elective surgeries. These units have been converted to accept adult patients up to age 30 or 40 years. Our med-peds colleagues quickly created webinars and online resource packages on topics pediatric hospitalists might need to care for that population. There were refresher courses on ventilator management and reminders that community pediatric hospitalists, who in the winter might have one-third of their admissions with RSV, have more experience managing viral pneumonia than the internists.
Ward teams were created with a pediatric attending and an internal medicine resident. The resident’s familiarity with the names of blood pressure medicines complemented the attending’s years of clinical judgment and bedside manner. People are stepping out of their comfort zones but initial reports from the front lines are that, with each other’s support, we’ve got this.
Mistakes in telemedicine are being made, shared, and learned from. Emergency physicians are collecting anecdotes of situations when things were missed or treatment delayed. Surgeons report seeing increased numbers of cases in which the diagnosis of appendicitis was delayed, which isn’t surprising when a pediatrician cannot lay hands on the belly. Perhaps any case in which a parent calls a second or third time should be seen in the flesh.
Some newborn nurseries are discharging mother and baby at 24 hours after birth and rediscovering what was learned about that practice, which became common in the 1990s. It works well for the vast majority of babies, but we need to be ready to detect the occasional jaundiced baby or the one where breastfeeding isn’t going well. The gray-haired pediatricians can recall those nuances.
Another key role is to help everyone process the frequent deaths during a pandemic. First, there are the families we care for. Children are losing grandparents with little warning. Parents may be overwhelmed with grief while ill themselves. That makes children vulnerable.
Our medical system in 2 months has moved heaven and earth – and significantly harmed the medical care and financial future of our children – trying to assure that every 80-year-old has the right to die while attached to a ventilator, even though only a small fraction of them will survive to discharge. Meanwhile, on the wards, visitation policies have people deteriorating and dying alone. I find this paradigm distressing and antithetical to my training.
Medicine and nursing both have long histories in which the practitioner recognized that there was little they could do to prevent the death. Their role was to compassionately guide the family through it. For some people, this connection is the most precious of the arts of medicine and nursing. We need to reexamine our values. We need to get creative. We need to involve palliative care experts and clergy with the same urgency with which we have automakers making ventilators.
Second, there are our colleagues. Pediatric caregivers, particularly trainees, rarely encounter deaths and can benefit from debriefing sessions, even short ones. There is comfort in having a colleague review the situation and say: “There was nothing you could have done.” Or even: “That minor omission did not alter the outcome.” Even when everything was done properly, deaths cause moral suffering that needs processing and healing. Even if you don’t have magic words to give, just being present aids in the healing. We are all in this, together.
Dr. Powell is a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. He has no relevant financial disclosures. Email him at [email protected].