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When paediatricians and families can’t agree
  1. Colin Wallis
  1. Correspondence to Dr Colin Wallis, Respiratory Unit, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Foundation Trust, London WC1N 3JH, UK; colin.wallis{at}

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Recent high-profile cases have highlighted the difficulties that professionals caring for terminally ill or technology dependent children face.

I am a paediatrician. I see children with severe problems, often chronic and frequently without a cure, and I try as far as possible to help them and their families. Occasionally there is science and evidence behind the decisions we make, but not always. Medicine does have its black and white disciplines—it is either cancer or it isn’t; or you either need to have an operation or you don’t. But paediatrics is often a discipline of uncertainty dealing with many shades of grey.

Paediatricians learn to live with uncertainty and similarly have to support parents and young people to accept this uncertainty. Sometimes we have to wait for nature to reveal itself or for the future to unfold as it should. Herein lies the art of paediatrics: the ability to watch and wait, intervening in a timely fashion when required to do so and recognising the sad eventuality of having to let go of life at times. This is our craft: to do what is in the child’s best interests and use therapies that will help with life’s quality but not unnecessarily prolong inevitable death.

However there are competing interests in this delicate balance in doing what is right for the child. Juggling our way along the best route required in reaching the best outcome for the child makes my opening paragraphs easier said than done.

First there is medical technology, what we can do, with advances developing at a breakneck speed. Home ventilation, home total parenteral nutrition, home dialysis and transplants are all now commonplace and can sustain life in children in whom death would otherwise have been inevitable. Gene editing and small molecule therapies have the potential to change the …

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  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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