Beyond the White Coat

Physician as trusted counselor


Pediatricians play many roles as they fulfill their duties and responsibilities. Among these is the role of trusted counselor.

A pediatrician is a risk manager. Not the risk manager at a brokerage firm assessing financial risks. Not the hospital lawyer providing legal advice to minimize lawsuits against the hospital. The pediatrician, as risk manager, is a fiduciary, confidant, partner, and guide for parents seeking to protect and maximize the health of their children.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell, a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant in St. Louis.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell

The practice of pediatrics deals with many low-probability, high-impact threats. This begins before birth. The obstetrician has already ordered a litany of prenatal screens, blood tests, and ultrasounds. Many of these have a positive predictive value of less than 20%. That means the alarming positive results are wrong more than 80% of the time. Tests done purportedly to reassure the parents are likely to falsely terrify them. This devilish process continues immediately after birth. The newborns are subjected to a wide variety of screening tests that they must pass before being stamped USDA Prime baby. Early in my career, a thorough newborn physical exam was the key means of identifying problems. Modern medicine employs a wide variety of blood tests, a hearing screen, a pulse ox check, and a transcutaneous bilirubin test before discharge. It is a gauntlet that few escape unscathed. Even the totally normal infant is going to flunk a handful of these screens. Then the nursery doctor is ready to erect additional hoops to jump through. Too big or too small? You need glucose checks. Breech presentation? A hip ultrasound. Too long in labor? Blood tests. Too pale or too ruddy? Blood tests. Not acting quite right? Temperature too high? Temperature too low? Too irritable? Too lethargic? Baby, you’ve hit the jackpot for extra blood tests, an app to estimate the risk of early-onset sepsis, and maybe a trip to the NICU.

Many of these protocols have poor positive predictive value results that are not easy to explain to lay people. The ideas are not easily taught to medical students. Those results can be even harder to communicate to new parents with health care careers. A little knowledge goes a long ways toward long, sleepless nights of worrying even though the baby is just fine. Even cute. Snuggly. A good baby! Parents, hug your baby! Feed the baby! Let the professional do most of the worrying.

What does a professional worrier offer? First, a comprehension of the science. The professional understands sensitivity and specificity, false-positive rates, prevalence, and positive predictive value. Second, particular knowledge of the various tests involved, including the confirmatory tests and the risk-benefit of treatment. Third, experienced clinical judgment that knows that lotteries are bad investments even though two people are splitting a $600 million lottery win this week. Most people don’t emotionally cope with small risks. Fourth, the ability to do values clarification. There is not a one-size-fits-all bedside approach in pediatrics. Parents have differing expectations, differing levels of risk aversion, and different methods for handling anxiety. First-time parents may be very risk intolerant with their baby. Some people deal with fear by seeking more information. Others are looking for evidence that the expert physician is committed to compassionately providing whatever is best for their child.

How has medicine evolved recently? I will highlight four items. First, as described earlier, there has been a large increase in the number of these screens that will be failed. Typical office practice continues the methodology with well child exams and developmental screening. Second, many screens have been introduced that have very low positive predictive value. This leads to many anxious parents who will benefit from pediatricians with the bedside manner to guide the parents and their precious baby through this maze of scientific interventions. The science is difficult enough to master during training. It takes more time to learn the art of counseling parents, listening to their concerns, and earning their trust. That art is practiced in face-to-face encounters with the parents. The classic approach to residency training limits the opportunity to observe and mentor the knowledge, skills, and empathy of a good bedside manner.

A third evolution, more recent, has been the widespread pollution of scientific knowledge with misinformation and disinformation through social media. I addressed that issue in my columns in January and March 2019.

Fourth, most recently, I believe the pandemic has emphasized to the public that nothing in life is totally risk free. Extreme efforts to reduce risk produce unwanted consequences. There is a window of opportunity here to work with parents and patients to build relationships that help people to assess risks and make more rational and beneficial choices. For example, when is the risk of meningitis in a febrile young infant low enough to manage at home? The risk will never be zero. But admission to the hospital “just in case” is not risk free either. People are acutely aware of that right now.

Health care professionals can position themselves as the trusted source of health information specific to a particular person’s situation. Health care professionals can be competent, committed, and compassionate listeners to what really worries people. In this way, we manage risk. This role also involves addressing the mental health crisis causing so much suicide and addiction. Severe problems should be referred to specialists, but I anticipate in the near future that most pediatricians will require more skills dealing with risk and anxiety rather than microbes.

Dr. Powell is a retired pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at

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