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Doctor Talk: Improving Communication with Your Child’s Pediatrician

If your kiddo is anything like mine, then you spend a lot of time in your pediatrician’s office. Thanks, winter at daycare! And, if you’re anything like me, you’ve often wondered about that time.

Wondered if you’re asking the right questions or giving the right pieces of information.

Wondered if you’re getting the best medical advice or the right diagnosis.

Wondered what the heck the medical advice you’re getting means.

Full disclosure, I’m a clinician and diagnostician in the field of mental health, so I might be more inquiring or skeptical than the average mom. But having that background has also shown me that diagnosing health issues is often more art than science. It’s also shown me the quality of communication between the patient (or parent) and the doctor is a key part of arriving at the best diagnosis.

PERFECTSo, from the trenches of the germy waiting room, here are a few tips for making the most out of those important conversations.

Write it down.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve forgotten to tell my son’s pediatrician a major symptom when I brought him in for a sick visit. In the chaos of comforting a sick and fussy child in a small windowless exam room, my brain simply said, “I’m outta here, lady!” and walked off. Then, an hour later, I’d find myself wondering if the thing I forgot to say would have changed the outcome.

This is such an easy fix. Have a smart phone? Jot it down! In the moments at home when you’ve got a bit more sanity and time to observe, write down every symptom or change you’ve noticed. This applies to well visits too. In between visits, if you find yourself with a question (e.g. “How many words is my toddler supposed to be saying by now?”), jot it down. I now keep a running note on my phone with questions for my son’s pediatrician. Or even better, if your doctor utilizes a health portal, send off a quick email when the thought occurs to you.

Kick embarrassment to the curb.

I’m not a medical doctor, and I don’t know much at all about childhood illness, which means that I ask A LOT of questions, questions that might be perceived as no brainers or overreactions to minor symptoms. Or at least that’s what my mind tells me. At times, I’ve been hesitant to ask these questions for fear I’ll appear stupid or overly anxious, which is entirely unhelpful. When it comes down to it, I’d rather look stupid or overreactive than fail to ask something important that could make a difference in my child’s health.

What’s your rationale?

The “white coat effect” is real. That is, it’s normal to have anxiety when interacting with authority figures, such as doctors, making us less likely to ask questions like, “How did you arrive at this diagnosis?” Or, “Why do you think it’s this, and not that?” My son was recently misdiagnosed by a doctor at urgent are with strep throat, and then his pediatrician diagnosed hand foot and mouth disease a day later. When I asked the pediatrician why he knew it was hand foot and mouth disease and not strep, he was able to give me a specific rationale supported by facts and research. I only wish I had asked the urgent care doc the same question before I unnecessarily started him on antibiotics.

All doctors worth their degree should be able to clearly communicate the reasons they are making their decisions, but they won’t always share these reasons if we don’t ask. That said, since medicine is constantly changing, it can also be helpful to ask your child’s doctor what the current research says about a particular diagnosis, treatment, or stage of development. This is also a good way of confirming that your pediatrician is keeping up with the latest findings!

Ask for what you want.

It can be difficult to disagree with an “expert.” Not to downplay the incredible training, knowledge, and care that most medical professionals put into their work, but at the end of the day, the real expert on your child is you. If you are concerned that the doctor isn’t doing enough to address your child’s symptoms or your concerns, it’s up to you to say so (politely, but assertively). It’s also up to you to clearly ask for what you think might be missing (e.g. extra testing, a second opinion), whether or not it’s eventually agreed upon. Use your supermama powers to be a kind but kick-butt advocate for your child’s needs!

Work to resolve before you cut and run.

Pediatricians are not perfect people. They misdiagnose, prescribe the wrong treatments, and are often in a rush. While these mistakes and imperfections can be irritating (or downright infuriating), they are also relatively common given the complex demands placed on medical professionals.

Recently, my son’s pediatrician made a major boo boo and missed an important diagnosis. I was, to put it lightly, quite upset. But I decided it was worth having a discussion with him before I impulsively switched to a new doctor who would also, presumably, be imperfect. The conversation, although difficult, revealed something incredibly important. I got the chance to see how he copes with negative feedback and responds to making errors. Thankfully, he was apologetic, empathic, non-defensive, and, subsequently, even more cautious in his decision making. Everything I’m looking for! Through that conversation, we were also able to build greater trust and openness in our relationship.

And maybe that’s the most valuable take home: The best relationships, whether personal or with medical professionals, are those based on trust and open communication. And that has just as much to do with us as our children’s doctors.

Healthy wishes!

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