Health Literacy and Partnering in Your Child's Care
Oct 23, 2023
As a parent, you probably consider yourself a health expert when it comes to your own child. Only you know how to decode the signs that mean your little one isn’t feeling quite right. Sometimes you know she’s sick before she even does.
As a pediatrician, I recognize parents as being experts on their child and consider them as a partner in their child’s healthcare. Health literacy—being able to find, read, understand, and use information in order to care for your child—helps make this partnership work.
We know there’s an overwhelming amount of complicated information about your child’s health, and we’re working to communicate more clearly. While we do that, here are some health literacy tips you can use before (and during) your next pediatrician’s visit. These will help you and your child get the most out of the appointment – and reduce your chances of needing to come back or visit the emergency room.
Document what and when. Before the appointment, make a list of your child’s main symptoms, if the symptoms impact his behavior, when the symptoms started and if the symptoms are always there or come and go. Bring your list to the visit. Having notes to refer to can help ensure you don’t forget anything, and help the doctor make the right diagnosis.
Prepare for your visit. Use tools like “Questions Are the Answer” and the “QuestionBuilder” app to help prepare for medical appointments and maximize visit time. These help you think about what you want to discuss with your child’s pediatrician beforehand and remember when you are at the visit.
Ask them to please repeat that. Doctors, including me, may use words or explanations that are hard to understand. If this happens, stop your pediatrician and ask her to explain it to you in a different way. Better yet, tell them what you understood them to say in your own words. This gives them a chance to clarify or confirm that everyone is on the same page. You can use phrases like: “I want to be sure I know what to do when we get home,” or “This is what I heard you say…can you tell me if I have it right?” or “I need to be able to explain this to ____’s dad (or coach or babysitter), so can you please go over that again?”
Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be sure you have the answers to these Ask Me 3 questions before you leave a visit. “What is my child’s main problem? What do I need to do? Why is it important?” The better you understand what’s happening with your child’s health, the better you’ll be able to take care of them.
Ask how long. Before you leave, ask your physician when she thinks your child will start feeling better and about how long it will be until they are recovered. Be sure you know what to expect over time, and what types of symptoms would prompt you to check with your child’s doctor with a call or another visit.
Take notes. Taking notes during the visit can help you keep track of details and instructions. If your physician is comfortable with it, record the appointment on your smartphone. If you think it would be helpful, especially if your child is really sick or has a complex medical problem, bring a friend or relative who can act as a second pair of ears.
Get a resource referral. Ask your pediatrician if they have any favorite websites, apps, or books they think are reliable sources of health information.
Do a med check. Medicine labels and dosing instructions can be tricky– but it’s critical that you know how to give your child medicine. Pharmacists are excellent resources and can help you decipher a bottle label, measure a medication, and understand what side effects to look out for. Ask the pharmacy for the right tool to measure liquid medicines accurately.
Health literacy – pass it on. Around the age of 5 or 6, encourage your kids to interact with the pediatrician to talk about symptoms and ask questions. Teenagers can fill out their own medical forms. These steps help them learn to communicate—and ask questions—about their health; these are important lifelong skills.
Using these health literacy tools and actions can help your children be healthier. And remember physician assistants and nurses are also great sources of information and advice.
Mary Ann Abrams, MD, MPH, is a member of the Section of Primary Care Pediatrics, medical director of GME Quality Improvement, vice-chair of GMEC, MOC portfolio manager at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and clinical assistant professor and longitudinal group substitute facilitator at the Ohio State University College of Medicine.
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