March 8, 2023

In The News: A Surge in Sick Children Exposed a Need for Major Changes to U.S. Hospitals

NPR News reports on the pediatric hospital bed shortage in the wake of a pediatric illnesses surge this past fall and winter. As the article points out, however, this is not a new revelation. Years of hospital cutbacks and staffing shortfalls led to this point and fully exposed the issue at a time of crisis for sick children and their parents/caregivers.

The article opens with a story about a child with RSV while on vacation, the child happened to be the son of a pediatric emergency medicine doctor. Emergency departments with the right equipment, staffing, policies and protocols to properly care for severely ill or injured children were four times more likely to lead to patient survival. A study published in early 2023 projected more than 1,400 children’s deaths could be prevented over a six-year period if every ED was well-prepared for pediatric cases.

Though the initial focus is on pediatric emergency departments, the article expands to pediatric hospital beds after pointing out most EDs transfer pediatric patients to children’s hospitals for necessary treatment. The number of children’s beds, however, dropped by almost 12% between 2008 and 2018, concentrating remaining beds predominately in major urban centers. Those remaining pediatric systems pushed to accommodate transfers and ensure patients would not be turned away. This time.

What the next respiratory season looks like is unknown, as is the behavior of the current or possible future pandemic. The pediatric (and larger) health care system must prepare now. Raising vaccination rates as additional treatments come to market should help avert another crisis surge, as would more telehealth capabilities and having a designated pediatric care coordinator at non-children’s hospitals.

But financial reforms are needed too. Those reforms could include changing how pediatric care is reimbursed, making pediatric careers more affordable and financially attractive, and investing in pediatric care resources.

PIDS member Larry Kociolek is quoted in the story, saying “During a surge, when volumes may double or even more in some communities, that leaves a gap — a major gap. And children suffer the consequences of that…So, while the adult health care community may benefit from [financially-motivated investments], the pediatric health care community is left behind.” Kris Bryant is also quoted.

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