July-August 2020 | Health

Screen time

How the pandemic is changing the way a Chevy Chase pediatrician connects with her patients

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Photo by Lindsey Max

One of Dr. Bertha Koomson’s favorite things about virtual visits during the pandemic is the way her youngest patients react to the computer. “Little babies always want to touch you on the screen,” says Koomson, a pediatrician at Capitol Medical Group in Chevy Chase. “It’s such fun when, say, a 6-month-old or a 9-month-old sees you on the screen, doesn’t know what’s happening, and then you wave and they break out into a smile and they’re all happy, interacting with you.”

In mid-March, Capitol Medical Group moved most appointments to telemedicine, set up a station for routine childhood vaccinations in an empty office space far from exam rooms, and staged a COVID-19 testing site in the parking lot for pediatric and adult patients (the practice includes an adult medicine division). As of June 7, staff had performed 717 nasal swabs, with 30 positive results for COVID-19, mostly in adults.

Koomson sees patients virtually for well-child visits and encourages parents to schedule any necessary vaccine appointments for the following day. She worries that a lot of kids could be behind on their vaccines after the pandemic. “The biggest fear is an outbreak of one of the common childhood illnesses that we have been trying to prevent for so many years,” she says.

When something can’t be diagnosed without an in-person exam or lab test—urinary issues, some earaches—the patient is scheduled for an office visit. “We don’t see as many sick kids anymore. Everybody’s quarantined, so kids are not getting sick as much. And even with allergy symptoms and asthma symptoms that are [traditionally] pretty high at this time of year, we’re not seeing as many because kids are indoors.”

The lack of organized sports has meant fewer calls about twisted ankles or possible fractures, but there’s been an increase in other issues. “One of the things that I’ve seen an uptick of is tick bites,” Koomson says. “[Families] are going for walks on trails and going in the woods.”

She’s also seen more mental health and behavioral concerns. “I saw at least three patients recently, school-age children who have had new changes. In one, it was more temper, crying episodes. Some kids have refused to do their schoolwork at home. Another kid, the mother found some writing expressing sadness at not seeing her friends,” Koomson says. “We’ve had to talk about that a lot with them, and then also recommend therapies, and luckily therapists can do a lot of what they do virtually.”

Growing up in Ghana, Koomson knew from a young age that she wanted to be a physician like her father. He was a general practitioner at a hospital, and died when she was 6. “We lived on the teaching hospital campus so we had a lot of doctors and nurses around us. In those days, the status of a doctor was very important, and for me was something I wanted to aspire to,” she says. After finishing medical school in Ghana, she went to Toronto for her residency and a fellowship before moving to Los Angeles after marrying her husband, Koby. She worked as a pediatric emergency department physician for seven years, then relocated to D.C. in 1997, when Koby became Ghana’s ambassador to the U.S. (he’s now a business consultant). They moved to Bethesda in 2001. After working at a private practice in D.C. for 15 years, Koomson joined Capitol Medical Group in 2015. She has a 28-year-old son who is in law school in Louisiana. Her 25-year-old daughter lives in New York but has recently been working out of her parents’ house.

Koomson believes telemedicine, sanitizing and frequent handwashing are here to stay, and that the pandemic’s long-term impact on kids might include anxiety over their parents’ health or their own. She thinks some kids will have a hard time adjusting to changes at school, whether it’s smaller classes or modifications to activities. But once kids have routines, Koomson says, the stress and anxiety should fade: “Kids generally forget easily.”