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Delaware Doctors Recommend Holistic Pediatric Care

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Technology and psychology are changing the way doctors—and parents—approach pediatric healthcare in Delaware and beyond.

When pediatrician Kerry Kirifides, M.D., was 4, she told her mother she wanted to be a doctor. By age 10, she had committed to pediatrics. Kirifides always envisioned a life being around children and helping families as she watched them grow.

Now in her 26th year as a pediatrician, Kirifides (affectionately known as Dr. K) is beginning to see the babies of her former patients at her Newark practice, Just Kids Pediatrics. While her commitment to those patients and their families has not wavered, much has changed about the way she practices medicine—technology, vaccines, medical advancements and a more “whole child” approach to patient care, she says.

“One amazing area of growth has been our approach in treating not just our patients’ physical needs but also their social, emotional and family needs,” Kirifides says. “We recognize that our patients are not diseases or symptoms— our patients are kids. They’re not just a sore throat.”

Twenty-six years ago, the focus on preventive medicine was mainly on immunizations, Kirifides points out. But with the evolution of medicine, doctors are now much more focused on how things affect children long-term.

“We are more aware now than ever before of epigenetic changes in our bodies [how behaviors and environment can cause changes in genes]and what we can do to help children prevent the development of long-term diseases and mitigate complications from those diseases,” she says. “We have the ability to truly make an impact by instilling things early on—like the benefits of healthy eating, the importance of physical activity and contact with nature, and addressing mental health.”

Developmental screenings, which start at 1 month of age, play a vital role in addressing potential issues.

Pediatricians throughout Delaware have partnered with the state to ensure these critical developmental screenings are available for all children, so a child’s development can be closely monitored over time. These include screenings for potential speech issues and autism, as well as for depression and anxiety as they progress toward their teen years. It was especially critical during the pandemic, Kirifides notes, to make sure children did not fall behind on these screenings and that potential developmental delays were not overlooked.The big-picture view from these screenings shows that kids are far more stressed out today, Kirifides says. “Pre-COVID, we were seeing 5 to 7 percent of our patients identifying as anxious or depressed,” she says. “Now that number is 20 to 25 percent. It’s certainly a growing problem across our country, but part of this is that we now have annual screenings for anxiety and depression. If we don’t bring it up, [children] don’t bring it up.”

Stacey Fox, M.D., who practices at Beacon Pediatrics in Rehoboth Beach and is the chair of the Early Literacy Committee for the Delaware Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (among many other positions), has been working in pediatric medicine for 15 years. She has seen tremendous strides in how vaccines and technology have improved medicine and is excited about what this means for the future.

“Vaccines have always been a huge part of what we’re doing, and with the COVID-19 vaccine, the community is much more aware of how important they are,” she says. “Now that we have successfully harnessed mRNA vaccine technology for COVID, the framework could be utilized for vaccines for other childhood illnesses in the future. We’ve also seen incredible improvements for vision screening—using a photo-screener, we can now screen younger children and diagnose many more conditions than just having them read letters on the wall.”

Related: What to Know About COVID-19 Vaccine Options for Delaware Kids

Advancements in technology in recent decades—and particularly cellphones— have improved how pediatric doctors are practicing. Fox points to a few big “game changers”: families having the ability to take pictures and videos of issues ranging from rashes to seizures; telehealth visits; FaceTime with a parent who couldn’t be present for a visit; and providing electronic vaccine sheets, questionnaires and forms with QR codes.

Parental approaches to pediatric care have also changed over the course of Kirifides’ and Fox’s careers. Kirifides stresses that parent involvement, at any level, is vital. “It’s not the number of hours you spend with your kid—it’s what you are doing during that time,” she says. “Thirty minutes putting together a puzzle is better than five hours spent in front of the television. It’s important to make the most of these opportunities, to recognize the value of that time together.”

Fox echoes the impact of these interactions. “Reading with your child, even for just a few minutes every day, starting as soon as your baby is born, is essential to your child’s social and emotional development [and] teaches them early literacy skills that set them up for success in kindergarten and beyond,” she says.

Both doctors say the best part of pediatric medicine is the relationships they develop with their patients and families. “Today I got a hug from a 3-year-old—who last time [I saw them] had major stranger anxiety about seeing me,” Fox says. “It made my day.”

Related: Nemours: 30 Years of Pediatric Cancer Care in Delaware

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