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Ten Tips for Finding a Medical Professional for Your Child

"The right to the best possible medical treatment is a fundamental right, especially for children." - UNESCO

1 Well before treatment is needed, help your child to prepare emotionally for medical procedures. Play "dentist", "doctor", or "hospital', read relevant books about children having medical treatment. To help your child become familiar with medical instruments before treatment is needed, find real instruments (such as a rubber pick and plastic dental mirror) or create "play" ones (such as using a piece of fabric as a blood pressure wrap). Medical treatment can be frightening to a child, especially if there are too many new and strange things to learn about all at once.

2 Find respectful, kind, and skilled caregivers now, and ask for your family to be accepted as their patients. If there is an emergency, you won't have time to check out recommendations. Ask your friends, other parents, La Leche League leaders, and anyone else whose opinions you trust, to recommend professionals who genuinely like children and respect their needs. Holistic medical personnel such as naturopathic dentists and pediatricians are usually patient and kind with children. It can be well worth the extra effort, such as driving to another town, to avoid traumatic medical experiences.

3 Be aware that most adults, regardless of their profession, do not "get it" that children deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (most likely because they were not treated respectfully in their own childhood). "Drive defensively" when medical treatment is needed. Don't assume that because someone went to dental school, nursing school, or medical school that they understand the critical importance of early childhood experience. This essential topic was almost certainly not covered in their classes. (A pediatric dentist once criticized me for nursing my son in toddlerhood, even though one of the many benefits of nursing is to help set the jaw properly, and help prevent the need for braces later on.)

4 Remember that medical professionals can be very intimidating. The usual argument for parent-child separation is that medical personnel can "better get their work done". A helpful reply is that you also have work to do - to provide critically important emotional support - and that with both of you doing your respective jobs, your child will receive the best possible care. You might remind them that everyone - child or adult - recuperates better and more quickly if given strong emotional support, and that someone closely bonded to the child can best provide this. The "Charter of Rights for Children in Hospitals" includes recommendations that also apply to office visits (you have our permission to print and share this article).

Be aware that children - like the elderly - often receive less pain medication than do adults. A child can experience great pain but feel powerless to ask for help. Stay on your child's side by validating their experience, and never hesitate to ask the staff for immediate pain relief to be given to your child.

5 Unless you have an emergency situation, always meet the staff well in advance before scheduling an appointment. Even so, be aware that no matter how cordial the staff may seem during a preliminary meeting, that may say little about how they actually see children.

To find a professional who will work in close partnership with your child as well as with you, always bring the child with you to see how they interact with him/her. Relying on even a glowing recommendation without first meeting the dentist/doctor/nurse may not be enough. Another family may have had a good experience because of numerous factors that do not apply to you or your child: the doctor may have had more personal rapport with the other family, he or she may have been in a better mood at the time, their child may have been older, more outgoing, or have had previous positive experiences with medical/dental visits. The procedure may also have been different and not as difficult.

6 Ask for a detailed, step-by-step description of what will happen during the entire appointment. If the staff is reluctant to give this information to you, go elsewhere. When my son needed surgery, I asked for and received a very detailed description of the procedure. Unfortunately, I was not told that they would take him forcefully from my arms and rush him into surgery, locking me out of the room, and ignoring my protests.

7 All too often, medical personnel can be intimidating and critical when their procedures are questioned. And when a child needs medical treatment, the parent is naturally distracted and worried, making communication more difficult. For these reasons, it can be very helpful to bring along an ally - a spouse, friend, or relative with similar views, to step in if you are having difficulty communicating your wishes, and to show that your views are not unique or odd. Your friend may also have creative solutions you may not have considered, such as having the child on your lap during a dental appointment. Whatever you suggest, be polite but assertive: "I'll be staying with her," or "I'd prefer to stay, thank you," and walk in as if they have given permission.

8 If the procedure is an elective one, remember that your legal consent is needed. If all else fails, and your child's critical needs for support and comfort are being ignored, make it clear that you can and will withdraw permission if necessary. If you find yourself in a really difficult situation, ask to speak to the head nurse, department head, or hospital administrator. Don't be deceived by a nurse's claim that there is "no one higher". Again, having an ally present can be very helpful if the situation requires such a confrontation. Remember that you owe far more to your child than to a stranger, regardless of their professional status.

9 Be especially careful about making promises to your child that you may not be able to keep. For example, before promising to be present in the recovery room, be sure that this is possible and that all relevant personnel are informed of this plan. Although I had permission from my son's doctor to be present when he awoke, the nurses on duty that day had not been informed. Broken promises endanger the trust between parent and child, and should always be avoided.

10 Finally, send a letter after the procedure, letting the staff know what worked and what didn't. This type of feedback is essential for effecting positive changes in our medical institutions. And don't limit such letters to negative experiences. Applauding the efforts of staff members who were particularly supportive can be the most helpful feedback of all.

Even the most meticulous planning won't guarantee that you aren't surprised by dental/medical procedures or policies. If something goes amiss, be prepared to validate the child's feelings of being abandoned or betrayed. Accept the anger and allow it to be expressed safely (such as by providing pillows for pounding), and accept and express your own anger and disappointment. Tell your child how you feel, what you wish you had done, and what the child deserved to have had from you and from the doctor. Apologize, and reassure him that it was not deliberate on your part. Show with your words and actions that you are on his side, even though things went wrong. We can only do the best we can, learn from our mistakes, and hopefully, do better next time.

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Jan Hunt, M.Sc. is a parenting counselor, director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.