REGARDLESS OF WHETHER an aspiring physician intends to become a pediatrician, it’s wise to attend a medical school with a solid pediatrics curriculum, according to pediatricians, who note that many types of doctors interact with children on a regular basis.
Anesthesiologists, emergency medicine physicians, ear-nose-and-throat doctors, orthopedic surgeons and psychiatrists frequently encounter kids, for instance. A diagnostic radiologist may read the X-ray of a sick or injured child, and an oncologist may treat a child with leukemia.
Because a child’s body is dramatically different than an adult’s, a child may have medical concerns that a grown-up would not, experts say. Even if children and adults suffer from the same ailment, an appropriate therapy for children may not be a good fit for adults, and vice versa. That means future doctors who intend to treat children need training on childhood health concerns.
Furthermore, a high-quality pediatrics rotation will cultivate skills that are useful in all areas of medicine, such as the ability to explain complicated health information in a down-to-earth way that the patient can easily understand – “an essential skill for any clinician,” says Dr. Katherine O’Donnell, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and undergraduate medical education director at Boston Children’s Hospital.
She notes that because children who exhibit the same symptom of illness – like vomiting – are more or less likely to have certain health conditions depending on their age, medical students in strong pediatrics programs learn to account for demographic characteristics while searching for the correct diagnosis. That person-focused approach is helpful in all medical fields, O’Donnell says.
Why Someone Might Choose to Become a Pediatrician
The potential to have a long-lasting, positive influence on someone’s life is one of the most compelling aspects of being a pediatrician, O’Donnell says.
A child’s primary care pediatrician could conceivably treat that child not only as a baby, but also as a toddler, elementary schooler, preteen and teenager. Witnessing and facilitating a child’s development is a major plus of the profession, experts say, noting that puberty is a time of incredible transformation in the human body.
Pediatricians also have a wide range of environments they could work in, ranging from hospitals to outpatient clinics. They also have the flexibility to choose between a career as a general practitioner and a job area with a more defined focus, such as adolescent medicine. They could also opt to become a physician scientist.
There’s also a financial aspect. Dr. Tyree M.S. Winters, associate professor of pediatrics at Rowan University in New Jersey, notes that pediatricians tend to earn lower salaries than other physicians but are often eligible for special student loan forgiveness programs, especially if they work in inner cities or rural areas.
Dr. Dan M. Cooper, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California—Irvine School of Medicine, says it is extremely fulfilling to help a gravely ill child get well.
“We saw our share of very sad things, but what was remarkable was the resilience – the biological resilience – that kids have and their ability to bounce back,” says Cooper, who also is associate vice chancellor for clinical and translational science and oversaw a pediatric intensive care unit for many years.
Pediatricians say their job is challenging, since it involves caring for a vulnerable population and advocating on behalf of patients who, to some degree, cannot speak for themselves. But they also note that this tough part of their profession is part of what makes it meaningful.
Pediatrics frequently involves addressing health problems that a child was born with, conditions such as a congenital heart disease that the child would either suffer with or die from without medical assistance. Another interesting aspect of this medical specialty, experts say, is that it involves chatting with a patient’s parents and not just the patient, which allows pediatricians to get an outside perspective on the condition of their patients that can be useful when making treatment decisions.
Pediatricians sometimes assist children with disabilities, like autism spectrum disorder and cerebral palsy. Increasing the autonomy, confidence and happiness of children with disabilities is one of the many potential benefits of a career in pediatrics.