Education and empathy are key to communicating with concerned parents

It’s that time of year again. School’s back in session, kids are getting sick, and well-meaning parents are rushing them to the doctor, armed with a list of diagnoses and treatments they’ve gathered from Google, Facebook, and the carpool line.

What can doctors do to remain respectful to parents, but give their young patients what they really need? (Hint: It’s not always antibiotics.) We’ve got some suggestions.

Explain, don’t shame

To busy parents, it may seem natural to poll their friends online about their child’s health issues. “Does this rash look like hand, foot, and mouth disease to you guys?” But even the most well-meaning acquaintances do not have the medical training that a doctor does.

“Asking people outside the medical community for health advice carries its own set of risks,” warned Emily McCullar, M.D., on KevinMD.com. People’s advice is shaped by their own experiences. However, just because one person experienced negative side effects with a certain medication or treatment does not mean someone else will.

Gently advise parents to bring their concerns to a doctor rather than attempting to diagnose their child over the Internet.

Gently advise parents—and all patients—that it is impossible to accurately diagnose someone over the Internet. Encourage them to bring their concerns to a doctor first. Take a tone of collaboration rather than dismissing them or shaming them, though.

“I’ve been given websites to look up because a parent is pretty sure their child has X, Y, or Z disease,” pediatrician Bill Bush, M.D., told Parents magazine. “I’m always happy to look and get back to them, but a diagnosis is based on our medical evaluation.”

For more on this topic, see Why It’s Finally Time to Embrace Dr. Google

Educate parents about antibiotics

Another message to convey, especially to parents of young patients, is that antibiotics are not always the answer. Most parents who request them just want their kids to get better as soon as possible. Take the time to explain why you are, or are not, prescribing antibiotics.

“There are times when it’s absolutely appropriate to give the antibiotic when they have a bacterial infection, but for the majority of the patients we see with viral illnesses, it’s not,” said Dr. Bush. “Colds and coughs don’t need an antibiotic, they just need time to heal.”

Explain that in some cases prescribing unnecessary antibiotics can make things worse.

You can also explain that overprescribing antibiotics can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which are harder to fight off. And, in some cases, antibiotics can actually prolong an infection.

A study in the journal Ophthalmology found that most people with acute conjunctivitis (pink eye) are prescribed antibiotic eye drops but don’t need them. And in about 20 percent of cases, patients received an antibiotic-steroid eye drop that can actually prolong or worsen the infection.

For more on this topic, see How Patients (and Doctors) Get Pink Eye Treatment Wrong

Encourage young patients to speak for themselves

Lastly, let’s discuss how to deal with those “helicopter parents.” Most doctors with young patients have encountered a parent who speaks for their child, insists on certain treatments, and/or won’t let their child—or the doctor—get a word in edgewise. Especially as children get older, these parents may actually be getting in the way of their child’s health care.

[bctt tweet=”Parents who control their children’s doctor visits can prevent young patients from raising important health concerns.” username=”goRendia”]

“Parents who control [doctor] visits prevent teens from learning to take control of their own health. It also keeps them from raising important health issues, questions, and concerns that their parents aren’t even aware of,” wrote Beth Oller, M.D., on the American Academy of Family Physicians blog.

If young patients don’t learn to talk with doctors about “easy” topics like upper respiratory infections or muscle sprains, she asks, how can we expect them to feel comfortable talking to doctors about issues such as contraception or alcohol, tobacco, and e-cigarette use?  

At yearly well-child or sports physical visits for her preteen and teen patients, “I begin discussing with parents that I like an opportunity during these visits to speak with the patient one-on-one,” said Dr. Oller, noting that most parents are receptive to this.

Counteract anger with empathy

Of course, it’s inevitable that some parents may get annoyed or angry with you or your staff–especially those who are anxious about their child’s health and are told something they don’t want to hear.

Recognize the importance of empathy and good communication skills in these situations, said pediatric hospitalist Jessica Lloyd, M.D., of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Doctors have to remember that when parents voice frustration, it’s because they’re worried and scared. If a parent is angry, pediatricians must take a step back … and not take it personally.”

For more advice on treating a pediatric patient population, see Tips for Educating Young Patients and Their Parents.