After decades of pediatric practice, Thomas K. McInerny, MD, still accentuates the positive. “I decided to become a pediatrician in my third year of medical school after my pediatrics rotation. I loved working with the children and their families so full of joy and hope,” he said. “I still feel that pediatrics is the greatest profession despite some frustrations with rules, regulations, and computer work.”

Many childhood diseases, including birth defects and forms of cancer that were fatal 50 years ago, now can be treated successfully, he noted. “However, there are more children with emotional, behavioral, and school problems, which pediatricians are now treating as there is a great shortage of mental health professionals for children.”

Although the dedication of pediatricians to their specialty has remained strong over the past 50 years, their work environment has evolved in many ways.

“Our work days 50 years ago were longer as we saw more patients with various infectious diseases, especially upper respiratory infections, pharyngitis, and ear infections,” recalled Dr. McInerny, a past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and emeritus professor at the University of Rochester, N.Y. “We actually did not spend more time with our patients in years past as most of their illnesses were able to be diagnosed and treated quickly. We spend more time with our patients now as we are counseling them for behavioral and school problem issues, and seeing fewer patients with infectious diseases.”

David T. Tayloe Jr., MD, also a past president of the AAP, currently practices in Goldsboro, N.C. When he established a solo community practice in 1977, he was one of a few pediatricians in the area, and he was busy. “I was the only pediatrician who could take care of really sick newborns and hospital patients, so I basically was available 24-7 for those first 2 years; there were two older pediatricians in town, and they took routine night call with me, giving me some time with my family,” he said. “With 1,500 deliveries a year at our hospital, there were always sick babies who needed my services. My office hours were 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. but often, in the cooler months, we saw patients until 8 p.m.” These days, Dr. Tayloe said he works 3-4 days in the office, and “my practice is largely behavioral health, school problems, obesity, asthma, and well-baby/child care.”

“In the last 20 years, my typical work day has changed in many ways,” said Julia Richerson, MD, who practices at the Family Health Center Iroquois office in South Louisville, Ky.

“In medical school, I had no interaction with computers, and in residency we were introduced to email within the training program. Now, of course, I am on the computer documenting notes, reviewing outside reports, submitting lab and consultation requests, and creating patient problem lists and other documentation that captures what I do in the office, then submitting charges electronically to our billing staff,” said Dr. Richerson, who currently serves as chair of the AAP Committee on Practice and Ambulatory Medicine and on several AAP task forces.

“I use electronic resources to find patient education, to look up current treatments, and research complicated diagnosis,” she noted.

“I feel that having the computer in the room isn’t a barrier to communication with my patients and families. Using the EHR doesn’t take me more time to see a patient,” she said. “However, the review of consult and ER records is harder and takes longer to complete. Consult, ER, and other outside records are much larger with the key clinical data more disorganized and harder to find among the pages and pages of nonrelevant content. This makes the workday much longer.”

The conditions that take up most of a pediatric office visit have changed as well, and include more complex medical, behavioral, and social issues, Dr. Richerson observed. “Obesity, ADHD, autism, complications of prematurity, behavioral health issues, developmental delays, and asthma are commonly seen in practice now. One in five children nationally have a chronic illness or special health care need. And we strive to help ease the challenges for families struggling with economic insecurity, and children growing up experiencing significant adversities.”

The office and the EHR

EHRs are a fact of life in all specialties today, but should not get in the way of interacting with patients, Dr. McInerny said. Many pediatricians complete their medical records after hours at home because they don’t have time to complete them in the office.

“I would advise the younger pediatricians to be sure to look at and interact with their families as much as possible while working on the computer, and showing the families entries and graphs from the computer. We were able to interact with families much more easily when writing out notes with pen and paper,” he said.

In his early years of practice, Dr. Tayloe recalled, “I spent less time with each patient; my focus was infectious disease, and I treated many patients with what today are vaccine-preventable diseases. I could see patients much faster with paper charts, but my documentation left much to be desired,” he said. “With the electronic record, I spend more time with each patient, but I type really fast and finish my charts in the exam rooms with the patients.”

“EHRs have made daily practice easier and more complicated for pediatricians,” said Dr. Richerson. “In the moment-to-moment use of EHRs while seeing patients, we can fairly quickly document the information we need to for patient care.” However, she said, “It takes some additional time to document all the data points required for quality- and value-based reimbursement programs, and it takes a significant amount of additional time in most EHRs to retrieve relevant information because you cannot query the system for clinical content on a patient. Also, reviewing incoming records is difficult because the information is voluminous and poorly organized,” she noted. “There are so many opportunities for improvement, and hopefully 20 years from now we will have EHRs that significantly improve quality and safety of patient care.”

Money and malpractice

The Vaccines for Children program led to an increase in incomes for pediatricians in the United States after 1994, according to Dr. Tayloe. “We began to be paid by insurance companies for most of what we do during the mid-90s and that boosted revenues,” he said. However, “On the flip side, we are now at the mercy of private payers, and must participate in all their very burdensome quality improvement/assurance programs if we are to be paid fairly. Our incomes were pretty flat over the last 5-10 years, especially for practices that participate fully in Medicaid/CHIP.”

Over the past 50 years, malpractice claims against pediatricians have remained consistently among the lowest for any medical specialty, according to Paul Greve, JD, a registered professional liability underwriter and executive vice president and senior consultant at Willis Towers Watson Health Care Practice.

“Pediatricians don’t get sued that often,” said Mr. Greve. “They are very careful, and they have some of the best relationships with parents and families of any specialty,” he said. “The problem is that when there is a mistake, there is usually a severe injury to that child, so they fall within the top 4-5 specialties for payouts.”

The impact of EHRs on pediatric practice from a legal standpoint depends on the format of the EHR itself, Mr. Greve said. “Many of the EHRs that are designed for physicians, particularly the ones used in acute care settings, don’t allow the doctor to really highlight their thinking as they work through the diagnostic process, and that is very important in the defense of a malpractice case against a pediatrician,” he said.

“The pediatrician doesn’t have to be correct all the time, but it is important for the lawyers defending the case to see what the pediatrician’s thought process was. If the EHR allows for capturing the doctor’s thought process, that’s a well-designed EHR, and that’s critical,” he emphasized.

Diagnostic error is one of the most entrenched problems in medical malpractice, said Mr. Greve. Failure to diagnose and delay in diagnosis remain the most common allegations against pediatricians, he noted. Also, being aware of the environment is important to risk management in the office.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics has excellent publications on safety and risk management that all pediatricians should be aware of,” he said.

Inspiration and intangibles

“I think the changes that we are starting to see will continue to evolve over the next 50 years,” said Dr. Richerson. “Increased medical and social complexity of patients, changes in health technology, EHRs, personal health data monitoring, and continued changes in value based payment methods will be key.

“I hope that we gain, as a health delivery system, an appreciation of the impact of child health on adult health. Long-term adult health outcomes depend on improved child health outcomes. Investing in diseases like childhood obesity, mental health, and developmental issues, to name a few, will have a bigger impact on adult disease than any adult interventions,” she said. And really dealing with the impact of childhood adversity in health care and in the community and nationally in general is critical. This requires grassroots interventions to support families as well as local, state, and national policy. It also requires payment for health care services for the needed interventions in the office and hospital. Providing comprehensive medical care and addressing the medical and social complexities of child health in an effective, compassionate, and family-centered way takes time. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. But it requires more resources than are currently given to child health care. Adult medicine is accustomed to paying for disease managers for diabetes or care coordinators for heart failure. This is not the current state of delivery for children’s care and it should be. These are some of the major issues confronting pediatricians.

What has remained the same in pediatrics is the love the doctors have for their work, and the reflections of veteran clinicians on the intangible rewards of the practice may inspire the next generation.

Dr. Tayloe said that he chose pediatrics because “I was really intrigued by the skills necessary to care for sick newborns, including premature babies. I wanted to practice in a remote location where I could use all the skills I developed during residency, and be of significant value to the community.” Two of his four adult children were similarly inspired and followed in his footsteps.

“For pediatricians, helping families raise healthy children is a real privilege and very satisfying,” Dr. McInerny said.