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Your Doctor-Visit Problems  -- Solved!

A few years ago, I was at my pediatricians' office so often I could have hosted my kids' birthday parties in the waiting room. At 10 months, my son Jack started off the holiday season with a nasty ear infection, followed by bronchitis for Christmas and a post-New Year's ear infection. While we were waiting for our name to be called one day, the office assistant watched as my son happily climbed on and off the chairs, played with other kids, and stopped for Cheerio breaks in between. She peered out from the desk and announced to no one in particular: "Hmm. He doesn't look very sick to me."

Embarrassed (there was a waiting room full of moms who'd heard the comment) and angry, I thought about walking out. Instead, I managed to take a deep breath and mutter, "Why don't we let the doctor be the judge of that."

Perhaps it was just a meaningless comment that happened to rub me the wrong way. But dealing with a less-than-cheery receptionist  -- especially when you're sleep-deprived and concerned about your sick child  -- can be annoying, to say the least. And there are plenty of other challenges that can come up at a doctor visit that are just as frustrating. To make the best of them:

"My child adores one pediatrician that we see  -- but hides under the exam table if he has to see the other doc, his partner."

One Stamford, Connecticut, mom of three found herself in a similar dilemma. "My kids love one doctor, but they feel uncomfortable with another pediatrician in the practice. He doesn't go out of his way to engage the girls. And most of the time, we can barely understand what he's saying because he speaks in a low monotone," she says.

When her kids started to protest visits with this pediatrician, she says she wasn't willing to give up on the practice altogether because they take her insurance and she and the kids all liked the other pediatricians. Her solution? "Now, even when I call to make an appointment for a sick visit, I let the office staff know that I'm willing to wait until that doctor is available." Of course, if it comes down to one of her children needing to see a pediatrician right away, she wouldn't hesitate to go to the less-liked doc. "I trust him to make a competent diagnosis  -- but my preference is the doctor we're all more comfortable with."

Maureen Connolly is a mom of two boys and the coauthor of The Essential C-Section Guide.

"I can clean my entire house in the time it takes for someone at the office to answer my call."

Tricia Medved of Mineola, New York, mom of a 3-year-old and an 18-month-old, loves the pediatric practice they go to but says calling the office is frustrating nearly every time. She's repeatedly subjected to hang ups, eight-minute holds, and sometimes no answer at all. "My favorite is when I finally do get through and they tell me they can't schedule an appointment because the computers are down," says Medved.

Busy phone lines are to be expected, especially with so many parents calling at similar times of the day, says Judie Brooks, a site supervisor from the Genesis Health Group pediatric office in Bettendorf, Iowa. "We have seven separate phone lines that ring into our office," says Brooks. "And just about every morning between eight and nine, every one of those lines is busy."

Avoiding prime-time calling hours -- typically Monday mornings, the first hour after the office opens, and the hour following lunch -- can significantly up your odds of getting through quickly. But if your child needs to see the doctor first thing, start calling as soon as the office opens (or even a few minutes before). And if busy phone lines become a major nuisance, it's worth mentioning to your doctor at your next visit. If enough patients complain of the same thing, perhaps she'll consider ways to arrange for better calling coverage.

"I spend less time on line at the department of motor vehicles than I do in the waiting room every time we see the doctor!"

Okay, it just feels like an eternity when you have to wait for a half hour in a small, germ-filled room. But any mom can relate to the hair-raising difficulty of trying to keep a sick kid happy with the same three toys and a handful of crackers for more than 20 minutes. The most common reason for long wait times? Emergencies. Even if you've scheduled an appointment for your 6-month-old's well-visit exam weeks in advance, a 3-year-old who comes in with a dangerously high fever will be seen before you. Your 15-minute wait has just turned into 30 minutes or more.

Parents may also contribute to the backup. "A mom will bring a child in for an earache, which should involve a simple two-minute ear check, but then bring up the fact that the child is doing poorly in school -- which is another issue that requires some discussion," says Richard Miller, M.D., a pediatrician in Marblehead, Massachusetts. In other cases, he says, parents will try to get a two-for-one bargain -- asking about a bed-wetting problem or a sore throat an older child has, he says. Often, a doctor will feel compelled to at least address a question or check the other child's throat for trouble, which turns into a longer wait time for patients down the line.

There are no foolproof ways to avoid extended wait times, but there are a few things worth a try. "If you can, never schedule a well-visit exam on a Monday," says Susan Sorensen, M.D., a pediatrician in Reno, Nevada. "Monday is notorious for being the busiest day of the week, since we have to handle patients with illnesses that popped up over the weekend." And if you've spent the past few visits waiting 30 minutes or more, there's no harm in calling the office an hour before your appointment to ask if the doctor is running late. If he's behind, let your child nap or play a little longer at home.

"The salespeople at BabyGap showed more concern for my son than the receptionist did."

I realize the pressure of meeting a monthly sales quota might explain some of the niceties one gets at a store in the mall, but is it so much to ask to see a little concern -- feigned or real -- when you're holding a sick kid? After the receptionist's inappropriate comment when I was there with Jack, I mentioned it to the pediatrician at the end of his exam. He assured me that he'd discuss it with the receptionist. I also made sure this woman knew all about the antibiotic that had just been prescribed for my son's urinary tract infection when I was making the co-pay.

But what has served me best in the five years I've made visits to our pediatrician is learning to lighten up a little myself. I now know not to take it personally when I'm greeted at the front desk abruptly or rushed when booking an appointment. The staff who help run this busy pediatric office deal with hundreds of families. Since I've mellowed some, and make a point to smile more and do things like thank them for fitting me in last-minute, I've been rewarded with more smiles as well.

"I made it out of the waiting room in five minutes -- but then we were held captive in the exam room for a half hour!"

The contents of a purse and the exam-room scale are interesting for about ten minutes. After that, I dread what always comes next: my repeated pleas for my boys to get their hands out of the garbage bin filled with dirty tissues, and that, no, flying off the exam table like Superman is not allowed. One solution: "If the visit doesn't involve weighing or measuring, ask if you can stay in the waiting room until the doctor is really ready to see you," says Maureen Miles, a medical assistant with Pediatric Associates in Westfield, New Jersey. If that's not an option, you might wait until you're in the exam room to pull out a new book or toy. Another idea: The white paper on the exam-room table makes a great canvas -- so whip out those crayons stashed at the bottom of your diaper bag and let your toddler go to town. Those tongue depressors and cups on the doctor's countertop are also surefire kid pleasers. Turn the cups upside down and you've got a mini-drum set.

"Our doctor is like Dash from The Incredibles -- he speeds through the visit."

In order to do a thorough well-visit exam for a child under 2, a pediatrician needs to spend a good 10 to 15 minutes with the infant or toddler, says Dr. Sorensen. "We're not just doing a physical check of the body but also observing gross motor skills, how the child responds to language, and asking parents questions along the way about feeding and sleeping habits," she says. As a child gets older, a well-visit exam will require about the same amount of time. If you feel your pediatrician isn't covering these basics or is rushing a visit, it's worth saying something. Often, you'll get a reasonable answer, like the office was overwhelmed with sick visits that day or they had only one doctor on the schedule instead of two. If there's more than one doc on staff and you've felt rushed on more than one occasion, make your next appointment with a different doctor in the practice. If you're new to the pediatric group, take advantage of your time in the waiting room by asking other moms which doctors they like best.

Ultimately, try to remember that you're paying for a service -- and that means you have a right to make reasonable demands and question what doesn't seem right. Although you'll undoubtedly run into snags, a willingness to speak up (and to be understanding) will mean big payoffs for your family.

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