‘If I Hadn’t Listened to the Boy’s Mom, His Appendix Might Have Burst’

Pediatrician's powerful insight about communication between parent and doctor

by Meg Meeker, MD | Updated 12 Jan 2017 at 6:41 AM

I’ve watched parents raise children for more than three decades (and raised four of my own), so I know how hard it is. One question I get asked a lot is how parents can go about finding the best pediatrician for their child.

The relationship you develop with your child’s pediatrician will last decades — so it requires honesty, mutual trust, and good communication. I’ve been a pediatrician for over 30 years, so you can trust me on this one.

You, not your doctor, are in charge of feeding your baby — you must always get the help you need.

Start by asking friends in the medical field for a recommendation. Professionals in the medical field know each other’s reputations. The bad ones get singled out pretty quickly — usually on the basis of a medical mistake, not personality. So if you have a friend who works in a hospital, ask him or her who they recommend.

Then set up an interview. I love seeing new parents and understand that after they interview me, some will choose my practice and others won’t. When you schedule an interview with a potential pediatrician, make sure you ask five important questions:

1.) ‘What are your views on life?’
It is crucial that you feel supported and encouraged by your pediatrician because you are a far bigger influence over your child’s health and wellness than she is.

If you want to breastfeed until your baby is three years old, for instance, it’s important to feel supported by your doctor — not maligned. On the other hand, if you can’t breastfeed or choose not to, you should not feel shamed by your doctor. You, not your doctor, are in charge of feeding your baby, and you must always get the help you need.

2.) ‘Will you respect that I make final decisions for my child?’
The best thing that I can do as a pediatrician is to teach, support, and encourage parents because they — not I — hold the power in a child’s life. This means I must be open to listening to their ideas (even if I don’t agree) and respect their decisions. When you have an open relationship with your doctor, you will trust one another enough to weigh options and come to an agreement on what’s best for your child.

Related: Tough Love Wasn’t the Answer for This Mom

One caveat: This is particularly true when it comes to immunizations. Some parents don’t want their children immunized — and all pediatricians want to immunize. But we doctors are being told by insurance companies what we can and can’t do. For instance, many insurance companies withhold payment for the visit if we don’t immunize because they feel we are delivering “substandard” care. That’s why many doctors won’t take children in their practices unless parents agree to immunize. This means that it is harder to find doctors who truly let parents be in charge. This is frustrating for parents and pediatricians.

3.) ‘What is the office policy for sick kids?’
This sounds silly, but some medical practices don’t leave enough room in their schedules to see sick children, so parents end up going to Urgent Care centers instead of coming to see their doctor. At the first visit, ask if your baby will be seen on a day he is sick and make sure your doctor says yes. If he doesn’t, go elsewhere.

4.) ‘Will I have one main doctor?’
Some practices want children to see rotating doctors in the practice, but I don’t feel this is best for you or your children. It is important for doctors to get to know patients very well, especially if a chronic illness like diabetes, asthma, autism, etc., is involved. A doctor who knows your child will save you and him a lot of testing, trouble, and headache. Find a doctor that will commit to seeing your child for all well visits — but when your child is sick, realize he may need to see the doctor on call.

5.) ‘Who is on call at 3 a.m.?’
If your child is sick after hours, make sure that the person you call will be well-informed and knowledgeable. Most practices have doctors, physician assistants, or nurse practitioners take after-hours calls, but there are some practices that don’t.

One last thing, make sure your doctor is a good listener! You know your child better than anyone, and if you take your child to the doctor, and you say something’s wrong, then the doctor needs to find out what it is. Period. If you feel that your doctor listens well and takes your questions seriously, then he’s a good one.

Related: How to Be a ‘Big Picture’ Mom

I’ll never forget a mother who brought in her two-year-old, saying something was “off.” After examining him, I thought he might have an intestinal flu. But I looked at his mother, she looked at me and shook her head. She knew we were missing something.

I asked the boy to come into the hallway so I could watch him walk. He didn’t look right. I sent him for a CAT scan and within one hour, he was in surgery for appendicitis (very rare in two-year-olds). Fortunately, his appendix hadn’t burst yet. If I hadn’t listened to his mother, I might have missed it.

You may not find the perfect pediatrician, but you can find one who will meet your needs and take good care of your child. The relationship you have with your pediatrician is an intimate and very personal one requiring trust on your part and his part. So when you finally choose, I encourage you to trust your gut. You’ll know who you can trust and who you can’t.

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for 30 years. She is the author of the online course, “The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids,” which is part of The Strong Parent Project.

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