Just like adults, children get sick and injured. They take medications, undergo medical tests and sometimes need surgery. But children are not miniature grown-ups. They need to be cared for by doctors specially trained to treat children.
“Your pediatrician is your go-to person for questions about your child’s well-being, preventive care or when your child gets sick,” says Stephanie Duggins Davis, MD, physician-in-chief at UNC Children’s. “But sometimes, your child may have a problem that requires a pediatric specialist.”
A pediatric specialist is a doctor who has received extra training (usually two to three years) in a certain area such as oncology, pulmonology or cardiology. They have expertise and experience in how particular body systems and conditions occur in children, and how to best treat their illnesses.
“Diseases impact children differently. Medicine is prescribed based on weight in children,” Dr. Davis says. “You have to approach the care of children based on their age and developmental stage.”
Biological Differences Between Children and Adults
Developmentally, children are unique compared with adults. For example, children have smaller veins so it can be harder to draw their blood.
In addition, because babies and young children have smaller airways, they get much sicker with viruses such as RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. Recently, we have seen a viral surge leading to many pediatric hospitals reaching capacity.
“Because they have smaller airways, they have more difficulty with airway obstruction and wheezing, leading to bronchiolitis, and some children have to be admitted to the hospital,” Dr. Davis says. “Their anatomy and physiology are different.”
Performing surgery on children requires specialized expertise. A pediatric surgeon trains in the unique needs of children, who have smaller organs.
Understanding Childhood Development
Not only do pediatric specialists need to take into account the biological differences between children and adults, they also need to be able to change their approach to care depending on the developmental age of the child. Not every child grows or develops at the same pace.
“At every stage, from infancy up to the age of 18 to 20 years, there are different developmental stages that pose unique challenges,” Dr. Davis says. “Preschoolers may have difficulty cooperating, while a teen may not want to even talk to us. We understand these developmental stages and tailor our approach accordingly.”
Advocating for Children’s Health
In addition to being experts in treating children, pediatric specialists also are advocates for children.
“Children don’t have a voice, so we have to be their voice,” Dr. Davis says. “Children may be in situations where they need us to advocate for them. And it is so important to help children physically and mentally because healthy children lead to healthy adults.”
Types of Pediatric Specialists
There are many different types of pediatric specialists, including:
- Pediatric pulmonologists treat children with breathing and airway disorders, asthma and cystic fibrosis.
- Pediatric cardiologists treat a variety of fetal and pediatric heart conditions, including congenital heart disease, abnormal heart rhythms and heart murmurs.
- Pediatric endocrinologists diagnose, treat and manage hormonal disorders, including diabetes, growth problems, hypoglycemia and thyroid disease.
- Pediatric neurologists and neurosurgeons treat problems that involve the nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord, muscles and nerves. These include cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus, brain tumors and developmental disorders such as delayed speech or coordination issues.
- Pediatric gastroenterologists address issues with the digestive system or nutritional problems. Some examples of the conditions they treat include food allergies or intolerances, inflammatory bowel disease and gastroesophageal reflux disease.
- Pediatric hematologist/oncologists treat children, teens and young adults with cancer and blood disorders.
- Pediatric surgeons are trained to diagnose and perform operations on infants, children and young adults for a variety of conditions including trauma, cancer, birth defects and appendicitis.
- Pediatric emergency medicine specialists provide emergency medical care to ill and injured children.
- Developmental/behavioral pediatricians treat children with developmental, learning or behavioral problems, such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or anxiety disorder.
If you think your child needs a pediatric specialist, talk to your pediatrician. If you need a pediatrician, find one near you.