Youth Movement
Reasons to celebrate advances underway at Philadelphia-area institutions devoted to keeping kids healthy and happy
by Jennifer Updike

It’s a good time to be a kid in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Given the richness of health-care options in the area, there’s a certain fortune that comes with being born and raised here. More than 20 Philadelphia-area hospitals are considered “top ranked,” according to U.S. News & World Report’s Best Regional Hospitals rankings for 2012. What’s more, two Philadelphia-area children’s hospitals—Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children—were included on a list of 80 considered the best in the nation.

Click here for a list of the region’s best physicians who have devoted their lives to keeping local children happy and healthy, as compiled by Best Doctors Inc.

“There’s been a change in the landscape,” says Alex V. Levin, M.D., chief of pediatric ophthalmology and ocular genetics for Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia. “Doctors have the ability to specialize, but they can also super-specialize. Kids come here from all over the world for [treatment] of rare and unusual disorders. Gone are the days of the general ophthalmologist. Now we can offer a whole new level of care.

“Everything we do is geared around making it fun for a child,” he continues. “We capture their attention and get this very critical information about their eye, all in an environment of playfulness where we’re doing things like listening to Elmo’s song. With 95 percent of the patients who walk in the door, they’re with someone who cares more for them than anyone else in the world.”

Dr. Levin is board certified in both pediatrics and ophthalmology. His focus includes pediatric cataracts, glaucoma, uveitis, genetic eye disorders (in adults and children) and treatment of disorders associated with child abuse, such as retinal hemorrhages from shaken-baby syndrome. The field of genetics in particular has “exploded,” according to Dr. Levin, helping physicians understand diseases on a molecular level.

“It’s a very rewarding field, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” he says. “Taking a cataract out of an 80-year-old offers five years of additional quality of life, and that’s considered a huge success. But if I take out a cataract on a 5-year-old, we’re talking about 100 years of vision.”

Improvements in instrumentation and imaging technology have enabled physicians at Wills Eye to see parts of the eye with incredible detail, which effectively increases a surgeon’s ability to treat the presenting condition. 

“For something like retinitis pigmentosa (a degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment and even blindness), 15 years ago we would have said, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do,’” he says. “But the whole landscape of what we’re able to offer patients has changed, and now the sky is the limit.”

Regardless of a child’s vision disorder or condition—nearsightedness or glaucoma, both of which can run in families—getting treatment early is imperative.

“Visual development ceases at 10, 11 or 12 years old, so it’s important for us to have a look while it’s still developing,” he says. “With pediatric glaucoma and other uncommon disorders—things we specialize in—those are really bad and require intensive super-specialized treatment, so coming in for early intervention is key. … Whether a child need glasses or has an unheard-of disease, we’re committed to serving the community.”

Return to Normal
Dramatic change is afoot in practically every branch of pediatric medicine, including orthopedics.

“If we look at spinal deformity—something like scoliosis—surgical correction in the past used to require casts and bed rest of up to a year,” says Peter D. Pizzutillo, M.D., chief of orthopedic surgery and director of orthopedics for St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. “With the newer instrumentation and implants, you can get a child up and out of bed the next day, and you get much better corrections and you’re not losing those corrections.

“We have a large sports-medicine program,” he continues, “and there’s an unbelievable number of injuries we see—knees, ankle and elbows—and the way we’re repairing joint surfaces gets them back to normal function much more quickly; the techniques for fixation have really advanced biologically compared to even 15 years ago.”

A child with a broken femur, for example, who is treated with flexible rods and a cast is generally made to get up and move around as soon as the day after treatment, which helps avoid complications of bed rest, such as skin conditions and fluid buildup in the lungs. Yet the advances of modern medicine have helped children beyond recovering from the presenting physical injury, according to Dr. Pizzutillo.

“That’s meant tremendous changes for length of stay [in the hospital], which lessens the burden on families, and normal health is generally restored much better,” he says. “It also means kids can have a quicker return to socializing and normalizing their lives, which is healthier for their psychological development.

“If you have kids in their first decade of life who complains of a low ache, I don’t think you necessarily have to jump on everything that comes up,” he continues. “But if a child complains of discomfort that is persistent, there’s a whole host of possible causes for these things, including low-grade infections and Lyme disease, which is big in this area and can present as knee pain or back pain. See your family practitioner and go from there.”

In Transition
With reforms to the health-care system underway, some parents may worry over their ability to afford proper health care for their families. Mark Mintz, M.D., sees health care reform as a potential positive—even “very exciting.” A graduate of University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ)-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, he performed his pediatric residency training at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center, and completed a Pediatric Neurology fellowship at UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School. He is triple board certified in child neurology, pediatrics and neurodevelopmental disabilities.

“For me,” he says, “it has transformed the way I can service patients in a much better way, being able to have a collegial and personal interaction with patients—working more closely with nurses, therapists and a creative-arts program for people with special needs—and be able to use these on a regular basis. When patients can be evaluated from different professional viewpoints, it provides an overall higher quality of care and better outcomes, which leads to better overall patient satisfaction.”

Reform has also created an opportunity to extend a doctor’s reach beyond the walls of his or her office. Dr. Mintz’s practice, the Center for Neurological and Neurodevelopmental Health LLC (CNNH) in Gibbsboro, N.J., is now piloting a program with Hamilton Township School District in Atlantic County to support a specialized autism classroom in the district in a way that “bridges the divide” between the health care system and the educational system. CNNH can offer clinical consultation and collaborate on individualized curriculum development and teacher training.

“Children and adolescents spend most of their waking hours in a school environment,” he says. “We’re working with teachers and staff to provide neurological expertise, which is sort of unprecedented. We have the ability to capture events that occur when we’re not there, and analyze and provide information with ongoing clinical support.… Sometimes kids can become dangerous to society, which can be biologically driven, so something like this might be able to prevent future tragedies.”

CNNH is in the process of collaborating with other school districts, which could ultimately include those in the Philadelphia suburbs given CNNH’s recent expansion. CNNH, founded by Dr. Mintz in 2005, opened a new 22,000-square-foot campus in King of Prussia in January. CNNH’s patient- and family-centered model provides a comprehensive array of assessment, treatment and support services for neurological, developmental, behavioral, cognitive and related disorders—everything from autism and cerebral palsy to sports concussions and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

“When you talk about autism, there are many different reasons for the development of autistic symptoms, and the differences make a big impact from a diagnostic and behavioral perspective,” he says. “There’s some exciting research underway related to treatment. … It’s not necessarily a curable disorder, and it’s one of the most challenging neurological disorders there is, but with realistic expectations and a multidisciplinary approach, you can see some improvement with quality of life.”