"Healing Children" - Memoir By a Local Doctor at the Forefront of Children's Medicine - Washington FAMILY Magazine: Family Life

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"Healing Children" - Memoir By a Local Doctor at the Forefront of Children's Medicine

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Posted: Friday, February 2, 2018 10:52 am | Updated: 11:13 am, Fri Feb 2, 2018.

From their tiny hands to their budding imaginations, children are not the same as adults. And yet, it wasn’t until the ‘80s and ‘90s when their differences were recognized in the medical world. Pediatric specialists did not exist and many children were treated medically as adults.

Even today, children’s hospitals are not in abundance. There are 35 independent children’s hospitals in the United States and 200 that operate as part of a larger integrated health system. In comparison, there are over 5,000 hospitals throughout the country that primarily focus on adult care.

Dr. Kurt Newman, CEO and president of Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., saw the shortcomings of pediatric care early on in his career. He was fascinated by children’s personalities and resiliency, and wanted to bring a holistic, hands-on approach to pediatrics. Although pediatric medicine was not in his “game plan,” he discovered the excitement and impact of being a surgeon for children at a children’s hospital. His two-year fellowship at Children’s National has turned into a 30-plus year career in helping children and advancing medicine.

Dr. Newman recently released a new memoir, “Healing Children,” which chronicles his endeavors and lessons learned as a pediatric surgeon. Here’s what he had to say.

What was your motivation for writing the book?

After 32 years of being in a children’s hospital, most of that as a surgeon, I would get calls and questions from parents all the time about pediatric medicine. What I wanted to do was empower parents with the knowledge of how children are different than adults. The medicine is different. The biology is different.

How do children and adults differ physiologically?

One of the most obvious ways that children are different is that they start small and grow up. In every step of the way, their brain is developing from the time they are born to the time they are adults. At Children’s Hospital, doctors, nurses and specialists are aware of that development and have to factor that in.

Children are more resilient in many ways. Their tissues and their organs are more resilient. You want doctors and hospitals that are focus exclusively on children.

Why are there so few children’s hospitals in America?

It relates to the fact that children’s health care is not enough of a national priority. I don’t think we invest enough in our children. One example: There aren’t enough children’s hospitals. I think another example is when you listen to the debate on Capitol Hill and the legislative proposals, you don’t hear people talking about the impact on children. It’s all about adults, elderly and the disabled. Children are not part of the conversation.

I believe, instead of cutting funding and cutting Medicaid (which is such a big piece of the coverage for children), we invest more. It’s a smart investment and saves money in the long run. You’re eliminating diseases early and may be correcting things that may lead to future complications. Early diagnosis and early intervention is a smart investment.

What are common misconceptions that people have in regards to pediatric care?

I think the biggest one that I faced is that parents just don’t know. Parents may not understand that an emergency department, for example, doesn’t see that many children or have pediatric specialists available. They may not even have pediatric equipment available.

What I try to point out in the book is that it’s a good idea for parents to think about this ahead of time. People should be able to ask and advocate for their child, and think about where they are going to take their child if there is an emergency. And, to also make sure a children’s hospital is in their insurance plan.

Early in your career, many doctors preferred to work with adults over children. Why?

It takes a special commitment to care for children and families. It’s way more complicated because the discussions are more involved. You’re thinking about the children, growth, development and family dynamic.

As science and focus began to be applied to children, there was a greater understanding among doctors. It’s evolved in the last 50 or 60 years. When I first started, there may not have been a universal understanding, but now I think hospitals and doctors have come to understand. Now there are specialists for children like orthopedics, anesthesia and psychiatry. They are the ones that understand the resilience.

What has been most fulfilling for you in your career?

I feel most fulfilled when I’ve taken care of a child and they come back five, 10 or 20 years later and I see that they’ve grown up and overcome these odds.

Where would you like to see pediatric medicine go in the future?

The frontier of pediatric medicine is so exciting. All technological and scientific advancements coming to the forefront will have an impact on eliminating diseases. It is possible that a genetic illness caught during infancy or prenatally can be corrected. This early detection could avoid something like diabetes or heart disease or even Alzheimer’s. I think that is not far away. We need to do more like with mental illness in children. Twenty percent of children have mental or behavioral illness. We can do better by intervening early.

I think the future is really, really bright for what science and technology can bring. But the responsibility is on us to make those investments because it’s not going to happen if we don’t make our children a priority.

In the back of the book, Dr. Newman offers eight tips on how parents can get the best medical care for their children. “Healing Children” is available both online and in stores.

Beth Roessner is a D.C.-based writer and health coach.