“Children’s hospitals saw a more than 25% decline in injury-related emergency room visits during the first year of the pandemic.” There’s a headline that should soothe a nation starved for some good news. It was based onpublished in Pediatrics that reports on data collected in the Pediatric Health Information System between March 2020 and March 2021 using a 3-year period between 2017 and 2020 as a control. How could this not be good news? First, let’s not be too hasty in celebrating the good fortune of all those millions of children spared the pain and anxiety of an emergency department visit.
If you were an administrator of an emergency department attempting to match revenues with expenses, a 25% drop in visits may have hit your bottom line. Office-based pediatricians experienced a similar phenomenon when many parents quickly learned that they could ignore or self-manage minor illnesses and complaints.
A decrease in visits doesn’t necessarily mean that the conditions that drive the traffic flow in your facility have gone away. It may simply be that they are being managed somewhere else. However, it is equally likely that for some reason the pandemic created situations that made the usual illnesses and injuries that flood into emergency departments less likely to occur. And, here, other anecdotal evidence about weight gain and a decline in fitness point to the conclusion that when children are no longer in school, they settle into more sedentary and less injury-generating activities. Injuries from falling off the couch watching television or playing video games alone do occur but certainly with less frequency than the random collisions that are inevitable when scores of classmates are running around on the playground.
So while it may be tempting to view a decline in emergency department visits as a positive statistic, this pandemic should remind us to be careful about how we choose our metrics to measure the health of the community. A decline in injuries in the short term may be masking a more serious erosion in the health of the pediatric population over the long term. At times I worry that as a specialty we are so focused on injury prevention that we lose sight of the fact that being physically active comes with a risk. A risk that we may wish to minimize, but a risk we must accept if we want to encourage the physical activity that we know is so important in the bigger health picture. For example, emergency department visits caused by pedal cycles initially rose 60%, eventually settling into the 25%-30% range leading one to suspect there was a learning or relearning curve.
However, while visits for minor injuries declined 25%, those associated with firearms rose initially 22%, and then 42%, and finally over 35%. These numbers combined with significant increases in visits from suffocation, nonpedal transportation, and suicide intent make it clear that, for most children, being in school is significantly less dangerous than staying at home.
As the pandemic continues to tumble on and we are presented with future questions about whether to keep schools open or closed, I hope the results of this study and others will help school officials and their advisers step back and look beyond the simple metric of case numbers and appreciate that there are benefits to being in school that go far beyond what can be learned in class.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at.