A Path to Pediatrics
Dr. Schonfeld came to medicine early in life. She graduated high school in Freeport, Long Island, at the age of 17 and went right into a six-year program that combined undergraduate study at Boston University and medical school at Boston University School of Medicine. With her father a physician and her mother a nurse, the path seemed familiar, although she did briefly consider a career as a concert pianist.
“I realized I hated performing for other people,” she says with a laugh.
In medical school, she thought she wanted to become a surgeon, but wound up disliking the culture. During a third-year rotation in pediatrics, she immediately bonded with her preceptors and fell in love with the work. Soon, she abandoned her plans to go into surgery.
“I had a talent related to young children,” she says. “I changed my mind.”
Although she hadn’t necessarily envisioned running her own practice as she went through medical school and residency, the opportunity in East Hampton turned out to be the right choice, one that has led to over three decades of service and strong bonds with patients.
“If I can’t hold and cuddle a baby at least once a day I can’t sleep right,” she says.
In 2002, she moved into a new office space that she designed from scratch, allowing her to expand her practice’s offerings. It now boasts a high complexity CLIA-certified lab, with an x-ray facility, and a pharmacy in the same building. She’s integrated mental health into her practice, added a dietician to her staff, and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, was able to rapidly expand telemedicine. Now boasting three physicians, East End Pediatrics has become an essential part of the East Hampton community.
Her practice sees patient numbers balloon in the summer months as New York City residents head to the Hamptons to their summer homes.
“For half of my patients, I am not their primary care provider,” she says.
This means East End Pediatrics is often braced for urgent care visits and increased volume on holiday weekends like the Fourth of July and Labor Day. It also translates into a certain amount of flexibility: Dr. Schonfeld says they handle procedures that other practices may refer elsewhere, like suturing, stabilizing fractures, and IV placement for hydration. They offer same day urgent and emergency care appointments 365 days a year and have around-the-clock on-call availability.
“We have people visiting the area who request urgent care services,” she says. “Or they summer out here and they like the services we provide and become our patients.”
Over the years, she’s learned to use her connections in the community to advance the health of children. When she saw more and more children lacking access to dental care in the early 2000s, she formed a non-profit called the Pediatric Dental Fund of the Hamptons. Galas and events raised awareness and money, bringing families in the region together around the cause. The funds went to local pediatric dentists to help cover the costs of providing care to children in need.
“I have leveraged my successes to my advantage,” she says. “Part of being resourceful is understanding your tools and allies. Then align your goals and work in a collaborative fashion.”
One innovation she recently began piloting: mental health care integrated into the practice. Part-time mental health professionals, paid on salary, provide care. A patient’s insurance is billed through her practice, streamlining the process and allowing more immediate access. Established about five years ago, she’s still working through insurance-related challenges, but is optimistic that her efforts are filling an important essential service.
“I think there’s been a real awakening when it comes to teens in terms of being more forthcoming with their mental health problems in general, and specifically with their primary care provider,” she says.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, East End Pediatrics has had to quickly adapt to families returning to their summer homes to quarantine.
“Every year in July and August the population swells to three times normal and I have to accommodate providing care to a much larger population in the practice,” she says. “My volume literally doubles. Now it started in mid-March and is continuing through to the fall.”
This has meant setting up separate areas of the practice for well-child visits and COVID-19 related visits. They’ve expanded hours to allow for fewer people in the practice at a given time. Telehealth has also become an integral part of their approach; Dr. Schonfeld recently wrote an opinion piece for the AAP Voices blog encouraging routine and preventive care even during the pandemic, touting telehealth as one tool pediatricians should deploy.
“A parent shouldn’t be afraid of going to the doctor,” she says in the piece. “There are ways to deliver the care patients need and still be safe.”