Growing up, many of us had our tonsils out or ear tubes put in. I'm sure we all remember the yucky "bubble gum" antibiotics we used to have to choke down when we were sick. Just a childhood rite of passage, right?
For our own children, it seems as if some operations and treatments are just as routine. However, recent research has shown that many of these childhood procedures are not as necessary as once thought, and yet, some doctors continue to prescribe them. And medical professionals aren't the only ones to blame, as many parents heavily pressure their health care providers to prescribe antibiotics or demand their child has a procedure they may not need.
Here are some common childhood treatments and procedures to think twice about.
According to a study conducted by the University of Chicago, “At least 1 in 10 children received unnecessary medical services in 2014—causing them potential harm and costing families more than $9 million.” Though some of those services were unneeded tests, most of that money was spent on medication children didn't need, some of which were detrimental to their health.
The most over-prescribed medications were antibiotics for upper respiratory infections, cough and cold medicine, and acid blockers for babies exhibiting some symptoms of reflux. Overuse of antibiotics can cause your child to develop antibiotic resistance, which can lead to hard-to-treat, even life-threatening infections.
It’s easy to blame doctors for this troubling trend—perhaps they just want to move on to the next patient in their busy schedule, or don’t trust the parents’ assessment of their child’s symptoms—but caregivers can contribute to the problem by demanding treatments and tests that doctors would not normally recommend so vehemently that physicians feel forced to give in despite their better judgment.
When a child has repeated ear infections that don’t respond well to antibiotics, or fluid retains behind the eardrum for an extended period of time, doctors often perform a procedure called a tympanostomy. A small incision is made in the eardrum, and a tube put in place to drain excess fluid that otherwise would remain, causing the child pain, hearing loss, behavioral problems and even developmental delays in language. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, “By the age of 3, one out of 15 children will have tubes in their ears.”
The Academy has recently revised its guidelines regarding this surgery, stating that children who have frequent ear infections but no long-term fluid buildup are not candidates for the procedure, and fluid must remain behind the ear for three months or more.
Ear tubes have been used in the past to help kids with language delays, thought to be brought about by fluid causing them to hear everything “underwater,” making it very difficult to discern and mimic sounds. However, according to a recent study from the University of Pittsburgh, “about 400 children were followed for 10 years. Researchers found that those who got ear tubes did no better on speech and language tests than those who didn't get ear tubes.”
Doctors now suggest other courses of action to try first with language delays before jumping onto the ear-tube wagon.
As parents, when we think something is wrong with our child, we want answers and solutions.
Adenoids and Tonsils
Tonsillectomies are the third most common surgery performed on children in the U.S. But according to a study done by the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, 111 kids with symptoms that would have traditionally encouraged doctors to remove the adenoids were divided into two groups—one group had the operation immediately, while the others were monitored carefully and treated with antibiotics and nasal sprays. In the end, “the study team found no difference in future respiratory infections or ear problems in kids who did or didn't have immediate adenoidectomy. Of the 57 kids initially allocated to watchful waiting, 23 went on to have their adenoids removed.”
And I'm sure you can guess that the cost of the surgery was significantly more than the other treatments.
The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery also revised their guidelines in 2011 regarding tonsilectomies. The new guidelines are very specific about how many throat infections—as diagnosed by a doctor—a child must have per year or over time in order for them to be eligible for the surgery, and recommends tonsillectomies only for those most severely affected. They also advise that "doctors should not routinely prescribe antibiotics to improve recovery following tonsillectomy surgery, because medical studies show no consistent benefits over placebo and there are associated risks and side effects."
As parents, when we think something is wrong with our child, we want answers and solutions. It’s very difficult for us to see our children suffering, and it’s so easy to turn to medical procedures and treatments we think will make them feel better. However, it’s best to stick to what the doctors suggest, and if you think your child’s doctor is suggesting something unnecessary, don’t be afraid to speak up and get a second opinion. Families need to strike a balance where they feel their child's doctor is hearing and responding to their concerns while still taking their doctor's professional opinions seriously.
At the end of the day, we all want the same thing: a happy and healthy child.