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How to Talk to Your Doctor

Thorbjörn Ingason

The doctor will see you now—and the clock is ticking. Studies show you get only about 15 minutes of face time with your pediatrician during an average well visit, so you’ll want to make every second count. But even a simple checkup can make your head spin. There’s a ton to remember: not just what the doctor says but also questions you want to ask.

Too often, the result is brain overload. “Parents forget a lot of what’s said during checkups, and as a mom myself, I can see how this happens,”says Geeta Singhal, M.D., head of pediatric hospital medicine and an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine. “You get distracted, or are so worried about something the doctor said that it’s hard to focus.

It’s challenging for parents to keep it all straight.” It’s challenging for your pediatrician, too. A recent study led by Dr. Singhal found that more than 50 percent of pediatricians admit they make at least one or two diagnostic errors a month, and that once or twice a year, the slip-up is serious enough to cause harm. Common mistakes include treating a viral illness as a bacterial one requiring antibiotics, misdiagnosing medication side effects and mental health disorders, and making the wrong call due to a communication breakdown with parents. (Hey, doctors may be highly trained, but they’re human, too!)

Luckily, there are some straightforward ways to avoid all this medical mayhem and ensure your child gets the best possible care. Here, five pointers from pediatricians.

1. Find a go-to health care provider

“Kids need what’s called a ‘medical home’—a place where you’ve established a relationship with one pediatrician, or even a nurse-practitioner,” says William Stratbucker, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University and a pediatrician at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, in Grand Rapids. But what often happens is that in the interest of getting a shot or exam done—check!—parents seek other avenues. “If you wind up going to a drugstore clinic or even a different physician in the same practice, then consistent, personalized messages don’t happen,” says Dr. Stratbucker. For example, your usual pediatrician may ask “What has your kid been eating? Remember we talked last time about making healthier choices?” An unfamiliar doc wouldn’t know to ask.

If you do nothing else…Call a month in advance if your pediatrician books way out. it’s also key to like the health care provider you choose. “Don’t go to a doctor just because everyone says he’s so good,” cautions rahul Parikh, M.D., a pediatrician in Walnut Creek, CA. “Pick someone you trust and can talk openly with.” 


2. Know your child’s medical history

Even if he’s healthy, you should have a folder or smartphone app with information such as immunization dates, past tests, health issues and treatments, and drug reactions or allergies. “When your child has a nasty ear infection, and it’s three in the morning, an ER doctor might administer an antibiotic, not knowing that last time it didn’t work,” says Dr. Stratbucker. “If you had that information with you, the exact name of the drug would be in front of the doctor in black and white.”

If you do nothing else…Stash all paperwork, including a detailed family health history and business cards from any specialists your child has seen, in a folder. if your child has an ongoing health problem, keep a copy of her health history on a key-ring flash drive. Often a doctor or ER attendant can pop it into a computer, which can be extremely helpful,” says Dr. Stratbucker.


3. Arrive prepared.

Jot down any medications and supplements your child is taking, even multivitamins, OTC allergy meds, or the occasional pain reliever. Better yet, bring in photos or samples of them. “You wouldn’t believe how many parents come in and say ‘Uh, I don’t know the name of the medicine my kid is on—it’s the pink one,’ ” says Anita Chandra-Puri, M.D., a pediatrician with Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group, in Chicago, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

If you do nothing else…Write down five or six things you want to ask the doctor, even if your child is healthy and happy. “To me, it shows you’re really taking responsible care of your child,” says Dr. Chandra-Puri. If you’re seeing a new doctor, take along copies of your kid’s medical records. Don’t assume they’re automatically requested and forwarded.