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There are many possibilities when choosing your medical specialization, and there's much to consider. This “Choosing Your Medical Specialty" series can help you learn more about each specialty and explore which one best matches your values, interests and abilities.

“Being a pediatrician is so valuable because you’re helping children in their earliest developmental years,” says Dr. Tehseen Ladha, a pediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Alberta who is focused on health equity. “If we can support them through that time and get them adequate resources, we’re setting them up to fulfill their best potential in life.”

Pediatricians are doctors who specialize in child and youth health. To become a pediatrician in Canada, medical school graduates must complete a four-year general pediatrics program, including a one-year residency. In their third year, students can choose to pursue one of a growing number of pediatric subspecialties.

What do pediatricians do?

Pediatricians provide a wide variety of services for children, youth and their families. Most pediatricians do one or more of the following:

  • Primary healthcare: Providing day-to-day care for sick children and preventing healthy children from getting sick by conducting physical exams, diagnosing and treating problems, providing education and advice, and administering immunizations.
  • Management of chronic illnesses: Taking care of children with complex medical needs, including long-term disabilities or conditions such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis or asthma.
  • Health promotion: Providing advice and guidance on issues like injury prevention, nutrition, physical activity and behavior.
  • Evaluation and assessment: Ensuring children reach appropriate developmental milestones and determining whether a child needs to be seen by another health professional for more specialized or targeted services.
  • Researching new treatments: Conducting research that contributes to new treatments and approaches for disorders in babies, children and youth.
  • Evaluating treatment measures: Assessing current therapies and approaches for pediatric disorders to ensure they are appropriate.

What are some options for working in pediatrics?

“What’s interesting and important to recognize is even as a general pediatrician, you can have a specialty that you really enjoy and work within,” says Dr. Ladha.

Many pediatricians choose to specialize in specific areas of child and youth health. An increasing number of recognized pediatric subspecialties provide opportunities to combine scientific research, medical education and clinical care. Some specialty areas include adolescent medicine, pediatric infectious disease, pediatric emergency medicine, pediatric allergy and immunology and many more. These specialty programs are generally three to four years long and require an additional two to three years of training. Pediatric neurology is the only specialty with a separate training program.

Dr. Ladha pursued a Master’s of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and is now the director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for postgraduate medical education at the University of Alberta. “If you are interested in health equity, you can focus on treating refugees at a refugee clinic. Or, if you have an interest in Indigenous health, you could do outreach work on reserves. You have the opportunity to develop your career into what you want.”

What makes a good pediatrician?

Effective communication — with patients, families, teachers and social service professionals — is key to providing high-quality pediatric care. Dr. Ladha says pediatricians must always remember they are working with a family unit, not just individual patients.

“Children live in the context of a family, and it’s really important that we examine their social determinants of health,” she explains. “What kind of environment are they living in? What are their family dynamics? What is their food security like? All those things are impactful for young patients, but they have little or no control over them.”

Dr. Ladha also says part of being a good general physician is being aware of unconscious bias, which means making judgments or decisions based on prior experience or personal beliefs. Studies have shown that unconscious bias in medicine may significantly impact patient care and outcomes, particularly when working with marginalized populations and vulnerable groups.

What should students look for in a pediatrics program?

Like any medical specialty program, students should choose a school that offers appropriate training and opportunities to gain skills, experience and contacts within their areas of interest. This may be clinical exposure, research output, residency programs or reputation.

Dr. Ladha says that universities in larger cities will tend to have more academic opportunities in terms of research and medical education. Regardless of where students pursue their degrees, Dr. Ladha says it’s important to connect with mentors early on in medical school and in your residency in pediatrics. Find these mentors through your rotations or the internet, and connect with them. “I have a lot of medical students and pediatric residents who do research. They get involved in teaching at an early stage, and that really sets a foundation for them to have those opportunities and those job offers once they graduate.”

How is the work-life balance for a pediatrician?

“I always say that medicine is not a career; it’s a lifestyle.” However, Dr. Ladha explains that setting boundaries outside work is key to maintaining a healthy work-life balance as a pediatrician.

“One way pediatricians do that is by not necessarily working full time and using that additional day to catch up on patient labs or do your research meetings,” she explains.

“I think, ultimately, focusing on your interests can also help with work-life balance. Pediatrics is so broad … if you try to do everything, it can get quite overwhelming, and you might not feel like you’re accomplishing as much as you’d like to. But if you can find a focus within general pediatrics, I see people tend to be able to achieve more and also have better work-life boundaries.”

What are the most challenging and rewarding parts of being a pediatrician?

In addition to maintaining a work-life balance, Dr. Ladha says working within complex family units can be quite challenging.

“There is understandably a lot of anxiety in a family when a child is sick. And so trying to manage the emotions, the stresses of the parent or caregiver, while you’re also managing the physical and emotional stresses on the child can be quite difficult to navigate,” she says.

On the other hand, Dr. Ladha says that being with kids is the most rewarding part of the job.

“You’ll have a child who one day in the hospital might be quite sick, and the next day, even though they have an IV attached to them and they’re on oxygen, they’re jumping on the bed, and they’re laughing, and they want to play. Kids generally don’t have those thoughts and fears around what’s going to happen if I don’t get better. They just tend to be these little humans of inspiration and laughter. Seeing that recovery and how resilient they are in the face of illness is very rewarding,” she says.

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