Improving Emergency Care for Kids Living Outside of Cities

Christine Kilgore

June 10, 2021

A new physician workforce study documents that almost all clinically active pediatric emergency physicians in the United States – 99% of them – work in urban areas, and that those who do practice in rural areas are significantly older and closer to retirement age.

The portrait of approximately 2,400 self-identified pediatric emergency medicine (EM) physicians may be unsurprising given the overall propensity of physicians – including board-certified general emergency physicians – to practice in urban areas. Even so, it underscores a decades-long concern that many children do not have access to optimal pediatric emergency care.

And the findings highlight the need, the authors say, to keep pressing to improve emergency care for a population of children with "a mortality rate that is already higher than that of its suburban and urban peers (JAMA Network Open 2021;4[5]:e2110084)."

Emergent care of pediatric patients is well within the scope of practice for physicians with training and board certification in general EM, but children and adolescents have different clinical needs and "there are high-stakes scenarios [in children] that we [as emergency physicians] don't get exposed to as often because we're not in a children's hospital or we just don't have that additional level of training," said Christopher L. Bennett, MD, MA, of the department of emergency medicine at Stanford University and lead author of the study.

Researchers have documented that some emergency physicians have some discomfort in caring for very ill pediatric patients, he and his coauthors wrote.

Children account for more than 20% of annual ED visits, and most children who seek emergency care in the United States – upwards of 80% – present to general emergency departments. Yet the vast majority of these EDs care for fewer than 14-15 children a day.

With such low pediatric volume, "there will never be pediatric emergency medicine physicians in the rural hospitals in [our] health care system," said Kathleen M. Brown, MD, medical director for quality and safety of the Emergency Medicine and Trauma Center at Children's National Medical Center in Washington.

Redistribution "is not a practical solution, and we've known that for a long time," said Brown, past chairperson of the American College of Emergency Physicians' pediatric emergency medicine committee. "That's why national efforts have focused on better preparing the general emergency department and making sure the hospital workforce is ready to take care of children ... to manage and stabilize [them] and recognize when they need more definitive care."

Continuing efforts to increase "pediatric readiness" in general EDs is one of the recommendations issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, ACEP, and Emergency Nurses Association in its most recent joint policy statement on emergency care for children, published in May (Pediatrics 2021;147[5]:e2021050787). A 2018 joint policy statement detailed the resources – medications, equipment, policies, and education – necessary for EDs to provide effective pediatric care (Pediatrics 2018;142[5]:e20182459).

There is some evidence that pediatric readiness has improved and that EDs with higher readiness scores may have better pediatric outcomes and lower mortality, said Brown, a coauthor of both policy statements. (One study cited in the 2018 policy statement, for example, found that children with extremity immobilization and a pain score of 5 or greater had faster management of their pain and decreased exposure to radiation when they were treated in a better-prepared facility than in a facility with less readiness.)

Yet many hospitals still do not have designated pediatric emergency care coordinators (PECCs) – roles that are widely believed to be central to pediatric readiness. PECCs (physicians and nurses) were recommended in 2006 by the then-Institute of Medicine and have been advocated by the AAP, ACEP, and other organizations.

According to 2013 data from the National Pediatric Readiness Project (NPRP), launched that year by the AAP, ACEP, ENA, and the federal Emergency Medical Services for Children program of the Health Resources and Services Administration, at least 15% of EDs lacked at least 1 piece of recommended equipment, and 81% reported barriers to pediatric emergency care guidelines. The NPRP is currently conducting an updated assessment, Brown said.

Some experts have proposed a different kind of solution – one in which American Board of Pediatrics–certified pediatric EM physicians would care for selective adult patients with common disease patterns who present to rural EDs, in addition to children. They might provide direct patient care across several hospitals in a region, while also addressing quality improvement and assisting EPs and other providers in the region on pediatric care issues.

The proposal, published in May 2020, comes from the 13-member special subcommittee of the ACEP committee on PEM that was tasked with exploring strategies to improve access to emergency pediatric expertise and disaster preparedness in all settings. The proposal was endorsed by the ACEP board of directors, said Jim Homme, MD, a coauthor of the paper (JACEP Open 2020;1:1520-6.)

"We're saying, look at the ped-trained pediatric emergency provider more broadly. They can actually successfully care for a broader patient population and make it financially feasible ... [for that physician] to be a part of the system," said Homme, program director of the emergency medicine residency at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science in Rochester, Minn.

"The benefit would be not only having the expertise to see children, but to train up other individuals in the institution, and be advocates for the care of children," he said.

"We're not saying we want a pediatrics-trained EM physician in every site so that every child would be seen by one – that's not the goal," Homme said. "The goal is to distribute them more broadly than they currently are, and in doing so, make available the other benefits besides direct patient care."

Most of the physicians in the United States who identify as pediatric EM physicians have completed either a pediatrics or EM residency, followed by a pediatric EM fellowship. It is much more common to have primary training in pediatrics than in EM, said Homme and Bennett. A small number of physicians, like Homme, are dually trained in pediatrics and EM through the completion of two residencies. Bennett's workforce study used the American Medical Association Physician Masterfile database and identified 2,403 clinically active pediatric EPs – 5% of all clinically active emergency physicians. Those practicing in rural areas had a median age of 59, compared with a median age of 46 in urban areas. More than half of the pediatric EPs – 68% – reported having pediatric EM board certification.

Three states – Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming – had no pediatric EMs at all, Bennett noted.

Readiness in Rural Oregon, New England

Torree McGowan, MD, an emergency physician with the St. Charles Health System in Oregon, works in small critical access hospitals in the rural towns of Madras and Prineville, each several hours by ground to the nearest pediatric hospital. She said she feels well equipped to care for children through her training (a rotation in a pediatric ICU and several months working in pediatric EDs) and through her ongoing work with pediatric patients. Children and adolescents comprise about 20%-30% of her volume.

She sees more pediatric illness – children with respiratory syncytial virus who need respiratory support, for instance, and children with severe asthma or diabetic ketoacidosis – than pediatric trauma. When she faces questions, uncertainties, or wants confirmation of a decision, she consults by phone with pediatric subspecialists.

"I don't take care of kids on vasopressor drips on a regular basis [for instance]," said McGowan, who sits on ACEP's disaster preparedness committee and is an Air Force veteran. "But I know the basics and can phone a colleague to be sure I'm doing it correctly. The ability to outreach is there."

Telemedicine is valuable, she said, but there may also be value in working alongside a pediatric EM physician. One of her EP colleagues is fellowship-trained in ultrasonography and "leads us in training and quality control," McGowan said. "And if she's on shift with you she'll teach you all about ultrasound. There's probably utility in having a pediatric EP who does that as well. But incentivizing that and taking them away from the pediatric hospital is a paradigm shift."

Either way, she said, "being able to bring that expertise out of urban centers, whether it's to a hospital group like ours or whether it's by telemedicine, is really, really helpful."

Her group does not have official PECCs, but the joint policy statements by AAP/ACEP/ENA on pediatric readiness and the "whole pediatric readiness effort' have been valuable in "driving conversations" with administrators about needs such as purchasing pediatric-sized video laryngoscope blades and other equipment needed for pediatric emergencies, however infrequently they may occur, McGowan said.

In New England, researchers leading a grassroots regional intervention to establish a PECC in every ED in the region have reported an increased prevalence of "pediatric champions" from less than 30% 5 years ago to greater than 90% in 2019, investigators have reported (Pediatr Emerg Care. 2021. doi: 10.1097/PEC.0000000000002456).

The initiative involved individual outreach to leaders of each ED – largely through phone and e-mail appeals – and collaboration among the State Emergency Medical Services for Children agencies and ACEP and ENA state chapters. The researchers are currently investigating the direct impact of PECCs on patient outcomes.

More on Regionalization of Ped-Trained EPs

Bennett sees telemedicine as a primary part of improving pediatric emergency care. "I think that's where things are going to go in pediatric emergency medicine," he said, especially in the wake of COVID-19: "I don't see how it's not going to become much more common."

Homme maintains that a broader integration of ABP-certified pediatric EM physicians into underserved regions would advance ED preparedness in a way that telemedicine, or even the appointment of PECCs, does not, said Homme.

Institutions would need to acknowledge that many of the current restrictions on pediatric EM physicians' scope of practice are based on arbitrary age cut-offs, and their leaders would need to expand hospital-defined privileges to better align with training and capabilities, he said. Local credentialing provisions and other policies would also need to be adjusted.

Pediatric EM physicians spend at least 4 months of their graduate EM training in an adult ED, and there is significant overlap in the core competencies and the procedures considered essential for practice between pediatric EM fellowship programs and EM programs, Homme and his coauthors wrote in their proposal. "The pandemic really reinforced this concept," Homme said. "As the number of patients in pediatric EDs plummeted, many of the ped-trained providers had to pivot and help care for adults. ... It worked great."

The broader integration of pediatrics-trained pediatric EM physicians fits well, he believes, with current workforce dynamics. "There aren't enough individuals coming out of an EM background and doing that subspecialty training to have any hope that they'd be able to cover these underserved areas," he said. "And the academic pediatric workforce is getting kind of saturated. So having additional employment opportunities would be great."

Homme pursued an EM residency after pediatrics training (rather than a pediatric EM fellowship) because he did not want to be limited geographically and because, while he wanted to focus on children, he also "wanted to be available to a larger population."

He believes that some pediatrics-trained pediatric EM physicians would choose rural practice options, and hopes that the proposal will gain traction. Some EPs will be opposed, he said, and some pediatrics-trained EPs will not interested, "but if we can find people open to the idea on both sides, I think we can really move the needle in the direction we're trying to, which is to disseminate an area of expertise into areas that just don't have it."

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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