As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many parents are unsure about whether it’s safe to bring children to the doctor for routine care or services. It can be tricky to decide which is more important for your family’s health: social distancing, or staying on schedule for medical care like pediatrician and dentist checkups, regular orthodontist or eye doctor visits, mental health services, speech or physical therapy, immunizations or other services.
What’s safe right now?
Obviously, any emergency or critical care need should be addressed right away. But your decision about whether to bring your child in for more routine care or services may depend on several factors in addition to how urgent the medical need is. If anyone in your family is high-risk, or if there’s a high transmission rate in your state or county right now, you may be considering switching to a virtual visit or putting off the appointment until the coronavirus risk decreases in your area.
Only you and a medical professional can determine what’s best for your family in each situation. But keep in mind that because of what the medical community has learned about the spread of Covid-19, “Our doctors offices and dental offices are really some of the safest places right now,” said Georgine Nanos, M.D., a California family physician who specializes in epidemiology.
In addition to encouraging telehealth visits when applicable, most healthcare practices are taking extra precautions for in-person visits such as limiting the number of patients in the office at one time, using additional PPE, disinfecting the office frequently, updating air filtration systems, and screening patients for symptoms (temperature checks, etc.) before entry. At many pediatricians’ offices, newborn visits are being scheduled at certain times of the day to limit risk of exposure, while sick child visits are scheduled at other times.
Some providers are even changing routine procedures: Dentists, for example, are cutting down on the use of power tools like electric toothbrushes because they can spray respiratory droplets into the air. Physical therapists are modifying equipment and the way they interact with patients.
Be sure to inquire about your healthcare provider’s safety protocols to see what measures they are taking. If the practice doesn’t yet have a rigorous safety plan in place for limiting the spread of respiratory droplets, consider finding another provider or waiting until it’s safer to go.
Well visits and immunizations
Well visits can be crucial, especially for checking on newborn health, monitoring growth and lab results, and keeping your child up to date with their immunizations. If your child will be returning to school, childcare, or any other social setting, vaccinations shouldn’t be put off, even if your school isn’t requiring them this year.
Child immunizations have plummeted across the country as a result of Covid-19 shutdowns and fears. But when it comes to many vaccine-preventable illnesses such as measles, meningitis, and pertussis (whooping cough), just a small drop in a community’s immunization rates can make these diseases highly dangerous again.
Sally Goza, M.D., president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, reminded parents, “We do not want to return to a time when parents had to worry their infant could die of meningitis—especially when we have a vaccine to prevent it. The COVID-19 pandemic is giving all of us a real-time education in what this vulnerability feels like. Fortunately, we have vaccines to protect children and teens against 16 different diseases.”
So be sure to ask your child’s doctor if any vaccines are scheduled for their upcoming appointment—if not, and there aren’t any other critical issues that must be looked at in person, you could consider postponing the appointment or making it virtual if you live in an area with high Covid-19 transmission.
Mental health services
Whether your child was already receiving mental health treatment before or not, addressing mental health concerns is incredibly important right now during the stress, uncertainty, and emotional disruption of the pandemic. “Children who were struggling before [the pandemic] are at higher risk now,” pointed out Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center. “We have to make sure services aren’t disrupted.”
Many mental health concerns can be addressed via online therapy sessions. However, depending on your child’s age or condition, virtual sessions might not be the most effective approach. A child who doesn’t express themselves verbally, or who is engaging in self-harm, for example, may need to go in for in-person treatment.
The bottom line is, discuss the situation in detail with your kids’ health provider first if you’re not sure if an in-person appointment is necessary. A virtual visit or phone conversation should help you make an informed decision that balances the risks versus the medical or mental health benefits.