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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Make the Most of Your Child's Doctor Visit

August 12, 2013

By Claire McCarthy

Boston Children's Hospital

Every time I enter an exam room to see a child and the parents, I want to make the most out of the visit. I want to make sure I take care of the child, and I want to make sure I help and educate the parents, as well. It's especially important if it's the annual checkup, because it may be the one time I see them all year, and my one chance to check on all aspects of the child's life.

Parents often have high expectations, too. The visit is their chance to get their nagging concerns addressed, their prescriptions renewed, their forms filled out — and to get general health questions answered.

Making sure everyone gets what they want and need isn't always easy, especially in a 15 to 30 minute appointment. But after seventeen years of practice, I've learned some ways that parents can help me — and themselves — make the most out of their visits.

The Basics

Some of these suggestions may seem obvious, but they are important:

  • Be on time. If you're late, the doctor will have less time to spend with you.


  • Don't send your child with somebody who doesn't know what's going on. So often, I have a family member or a babysitter who brings a patient in and can't tell me much about the child. This makes it much harder for me to be helpful.


  • Limit distractions. If possible, leave the crazy toddler sibling with a neighbor so that you and the doctor aren't spending valuable getting him out of the sink, or entertaining him to keep him quiet. If the patient is the crazy toddler, bring toys or crayons or whatever he usually will play with quietly. While handheld video games can pass the time in the waiting room, shut them off when the doctor comes in. Shut off your cell phone, too. Distractions make it harder for everyone to pay attention and think.


  • Have your child fully undressed when the doctor comes in. If we are ready to go, it's another timesaver.

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Be Prepared

These make a huge difference!

  • Write your questions down. A week or so before the visit, put a piece of paper up somewhere and jot things down as they come to you. Then bring the paper to the visit.


  • Do your homework. This one's a biggie for me. If you have a concern about your child, bring as much information as possible. For example, if your child is having trouble in school, talk to the teacher before the appointment to find out how things are going. If your child is having a physical complaint, like headaches or stomachaches, keep a diary of how often they occur, and any associated details — what they ate, how much they slept, whether it was a stressful day and bowel habits. The more I know, the easier it will be for me to figure out what's going on and what to do.


  • Bring your child's medications with you, or write them all down with the exact dose you are giving. This is especially important if someone besides your doctor, such as a specialist or emergency room doctor, has prescribed them. But do it even if your doctor has prescribed them to be sure you are giving them as directed. If you are using herbal medications, or giving vitamins, let the doctor know that, too.


  • If you have forms you need filled out, bring them with you and give them to the doctor at the beginning of the visit. It's frustrating to have a parent say at the end, "Jimmy can't start baseball if we don't turn these papers in tomorrow," when I haven't alloted time to go over them.

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If Time Runs Out...

  • Please be understanding. If the doctor spends more time with you, it's going to mean less time for the next family, and that's not fair. (You wouldn't want to be that next family!)


  • Make another appointment. Sometimes it's much better to spend an entire appointment just talking about your child's headaches, rather than trying to cram it into an annual checkup, when there's so much more to cover.


  • Ask for resources. For example, if your child is over- or under-weight, your doctor may be able to give you written information about good nutrition and exercise options. The Internet also has a wealth of really good health information. Check with your doctor about which websites are best.


  • Ask if there's anyone else who could help. If you have questions about how to use your child's inhaler, for example, a nurse could show you. An appointment with a nutritionist could help if your child is under- or overweight.

But please...

  • Let your doctor know you have more to talk about. It breaks my heart when people don't tell me their other worries, or when they don't call me when they realize after the appointment that they forgot to mention something. Then stuff either festers and gets worse, or parents worry unnecessarily. If you let the doctor know there's more on your mind, together you can find a way to meet your needs.

Remember, you and your doctor have the same goal: To keep your child healthy and happy. Together, you can make it happen.

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Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.

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