It is a busy night in the emergency department, and patients are lining up in the waiting room. The next patient is a 2-year-old boy with a cough, runny nose, and increased work of breathing. My stethoscope picks up a chorus of noises in his lungs, but no wheezes. The attending physician walks into the room with me, a pediatrics resident, and the mother looks on expectantly, hoping I will make her baby better.
The attending agrees with me, this child is doing poorly and needs to be admitted. Then the question comes: “What do you want to do for him?” A few minutes later, the patient is receiving an albuterol treatment. Unsurprisingly, he does not improve, but soon he disappears off to the floor and I move onto the next patient.
In medicine, the urge to help patients drives physicians every day. The true challenge comes when the only way to help patients is by doing less. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new bronchiolitis treatment guidelines . In this document, they cited numerous studies showing lack of benefit from albuterol or racemic epinephrine treatments, and they recommended against treatment trials in children with bronchiolitis. Additionally, they recommended against X-rays and steroids. This leaves pediatricians with the unsatisfying options of suctioning, watching, and waiting.
Physicians tend to be “fixers” by nature. Patients come to us to feel better, and we feel driven (internally and externally) to provide these cures. This desire can drive us to prescribe antibiotics for presumed viral infections, order imaging for minor head injuries, or offer trial bronchodilators in the setting of bronchiolitis. As medical trainees, we have the additional onus of answering to our attending physicians. Perhaps we are willing to watch a patient with bronchiolitis slowly evolve, but maybe some of our supervisors are not. How firmly do we stand our ground? What authority do we have?
Perhaps we have more to offer than we think. As trainees, we are exposed to education and updates from diverse fields of pediatrics, and this developing knowledge base can benefit our medical teams. We can utilize our knowledge of neurology to abort a seizure on the oncology floor. We can guide the evaluation for anemia while at an outpatient clinic. And we can apply our awareness of bronchiolitis guidelines to patients in the ED. By continuing to develop and apply an evidence base for our medical practice, we can provide meaningful insights about which interventions should (or should not) be done for our patients. Although uncomfortable at times, such situations provide us with the opportunity to improve medical practice while protecting our patients from unintended harms, gently remind our attending physicians which interventions should (or should not) be done for our patients. With education and a bit of spine, we can help our medical teams to follow that foremost of imperatives for the medical profession: Primum non nocere – First do no harm.
Dr. Sisk is a pediatrics resident at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. E-mail him at email@example.com .