In 1966 I was struggling with the decision of whether to become an art historian or go to medical school. I decided corporate ladder climbs and tenure chases were not for me. I wanted to be my own boss. I reckoned that medicine would offer me rock-solid job security and a comfortable income that I could adjust to my needs simply by working harder. In my Norman Rockwell–influenced view of the world, there would always be sick children. There would never be a quiet week or even a day when I would have to worry about not having an income.
So it was an idyllic existence for decades, tarnished only slightly when corporate entities began gobbling up owner-operator practices. But I never envisioned a pandemic that would turn the world – including its pediatricians – upside down. For the last several weeks as I pedal past my old office, I am dumbstruck by the empty parking lot. For the present I appear to be buffered by my retirement, but know that many of you are under serious financial pressure as a result of the pandemic.
We are all yearning to return to business as usual, but we know that it isn’t going to happen because everything has changed. The usual has yet to be defined. When you finally reopen your offices, you will be walking into a strange and eerie new normal. Initially you may struggle to make it feel like nothing has changed, but very quickly the full force of the postpandemic tsunami will hit us all broadside. In 2 years, the ship may still be rocking but what will clinical pediatrics look like in the late spring of 2022?
Will the patient mix have shifted even more toward behavioral and mental health complaints as a ripple effect of the pandemic’s emotional turmoil?Will your waiting room have become a maze of plexiglass barriers to separate the sick from the well? Has the hospital invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a ventilation system in hopes of minimizing contagion in your exam rooms? Maybe you will have instituted an appointment schedule with sick visits in the morning and well checks in the afternoon. Or you may no longer have a waiting room because patients are queuing in their cars in the parking lot. Your support staff may be rollerskating around like carhops at a drive-in recording histories and taking vital signs.
Telemedicine will hopefully have gone mainstream with more robust guidelines for billing and quality control. Medical schools may be devoting more attention to teaching student how to assess remotely. Parents may now be equipped with a tool kit of remote sensors so that you can assess their child’s tympanic membranes, pulse rate, oxygen saturation, and blood pressure on your office computer screen.
Will the EHR finally have begun to emerge from its awkward and at times painful adolescence into an easily accessible and transportable nationwide data bank that includes immunization records for all ages? Patients may have been asked or ordered to allow their cell phones to be used as tracking devices for serious communicable diseases. How many vaccine-resistant people will have responded to the pandemic by deciding that immunizations are worth the minimal risks? I fear not many.
How many of your colleagues will have left pediatrics and heeded the call for more epidemiologists? Will you be required to take a CME course in ventilation management? The good news may be that to keep the pediatric workforce robust the government has decided to forgive your student loans.
None of these changes may have come to pass because we have notoriously short memories. But I am sure that we will all still bear the deep scars of this world changing event.
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 [email protected].