An important role as a parent is keeping your growing son or daughter as strong and healthy as possible. As a parent, you do a lot of the heavy lifting in this area — you provide nutritious meals, allow plenty of time for play and activity, wipe runny noses, encourage budding social connections, and keep bedtime on time. An important ally in this job — and one you should take full advantage of — is your child’s primary medical provider.
Over the course of their lives, children may see a range of medical professionals for needs such as routine well-child checkups, vaccinations and emergency visits, as well as more specialized care for complex medical conditions. Making sure that all of these needs are being met is a primary medical provider — typically a pediatrician, family doctor, physician assistant or nurse practitioner.
It’s comforting to have a central go-to person who knows your child’s complete health history, who carefully follows your child’s growth and development, and who can alert you to any potential problems. Having a primary medical provider also gives you a ready point of contact when your child gets sick and can help minimize time spent in urgent care or the emergency room. Furthermore, the provider’s office can act as a central location for your child’s medical records.
In addition, the medical provider isn’t there solely for your child. He or she is a valuable reference for you, too, providing guidance, advice and support for navigating the sometimes difficult terrain of parenting.
Finding a medical provider
In many families, children continue to be seen by the same medical provider who took care of them when they were babies. This makes for a smooth transition into the preschool and school-age years. But what if you need to find another provider? Maybe your family has recently moved or your current provider for your child is retiring. Or perhaps you’ve yet to find a provider for your child.
In any case, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed by starting a new search. Being prepared can help smooth the process. In the long run, finding a quality medical provider for your child can be well worth it in terms of time, money and stress.
The first step in the process is to think about what kind of medical provider you’re looking for. Asking for provider recommendations from friends, relatives and co-workers with children, or another doctor such as your OB-GYN or other provider, is a great way to get some names and help compile a list.
Weighing your options
When it comes to choosing a medical provider for your child, you have some options. Several types of medical professionals are trained to provide care to children, including:
Pediatricians: A pediatrician is a doctor who specializes in caring for children from infancy through adolescence. After medical school, pediatricians complete a three-year residency program. During this time, they perform supervised care in places such as hospitals, subspecialty care and pediatricians’ offices. This hands-on training gives them the knowledge to treat a wide variety of childhood illnesses.
After a pediatric residency, doctors are eligible to take a written exam, given by the American Board of Pediatrics. Passing this exam means a pediatrician is “board certified” and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics — denoted by the letters “FAAP” that you might see after his or her name.
Some pediatricians choose to continue their education for an additional three or more years and train in a on of many pediatric subspecialties such as heart care (cardiology) or the care of premature newborns (neonatology).
Many parents appreciate that pediatricians are experts in caring for both children with complex medical needs as well as healthy children, and that they can answer most questions that come up.
Once your child is older — typically between the ages of 18 and 21 — he or she will transition to a medical provider for adults, such as an internal medicine doctor (internist) or a family doctor, a midlevel provider in one of these areas.
Family doctors: These are doctors who can provide care to all members of your family. Training in many different areas of medicine allows them to provide care to your child through adulthood and to treat most common problems, such as a cold or sore throat, and chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. If he or she provides care to your entire family, this provider will have the advantage of being familiar with your family’s medical history, as well.
Similar to pediatricians, family doctors complete a three-year residency after graduating from medical school and are eligible to become board certified in family medicine. During the course of this training, family doctors learn to care for young patients, though they don’t focus on this area of medicine to the extent a pediatrician does.
If you’re interested in having your child seen by your family doctor, ask if he or she is seeing children.
Midlevel providers: Midlevel providers include nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who have advanced education — such as a master’s or doctorate degree in nursing — and additional training in a specific area of medicine, such as pediatrics or family medicine/health.
After completion of nursing school, nurse practitioners go through a formal education program in their chosen specialty area such as family medicine or pediatrics. Pediatric nurse practitioners see children of all ages, from infants to teens, while family nurse practitioners see children and adults. These providers may work on their own or closely with or under the supervision of one or more doctors, depending on what state you live in.
Physician assistants are medical professionals who are trained and licensed to diagnose illness, develop and manage treatment plans, and prescribe medications. A physician assistant generally works with or under the supervision of a doctor, depending on state guidelines, and may serve as your primary medical provider. Physician assistants work in all areas of medicine, including pediatrics and family medicine.
Factors to consider
Before selecting a medical provider, think about what makes a good fit for you and your child. Information such as office hours and educational background can often be found on the provider’s website or other online profile. In addition, the following questions are worth considering as you do your research:
What are your needs? Though all of the medical providers mentioned earlier are trained to care for your child, certain aspects of training may be more important to you than others. For instance, does the provider you’re considering have plenty of experience with children? Does he or she list areas of expertise that you consider key to providing care to your child — for example, treating children with asthma or diabetes? Or maybe you’re looking for someone with expertise in behavioral health.
Does the provider accept your insurance? Even if the provider is listed in your benefits book or on your health insurance company’s website as being in the company’s network, it’s always a good idea to double-check with the provider’s office.
Where is the office located? Travel time can be an important factor. Having to drive a long distance for your child’s yearly visit may not be that big of a deal, but it can quickly become inconvenient when you have a sick child to transport. And during cold and flu season, those trips can be frequent.
Are appointments convenient? It’s not always easy to squeeze an appointment into the typical 9-to-5 schedule. You may find it more convenient if your child’s provider offers evening hours or weekend appointments.
Will you always see the same provider? It’s becoming more common these days for medical providers to be part of a larger group consisting of multiple medical professionals, including doctors and nurse practitioners. If it’s important to you that your child see a specific provider in the group, double-check that you’ll be able to request that provider for appointments.
Is the provider easily reached? Think about the type of communication you’re looking for between you and your child’s medical provider. What if you have questions or concerns after hours? Will the provider offer guidelines on what illnesses or other concerns warrant an office visit, and which ones can be handled over the phone?
You may prefer to contact the provider directly by email, or through a messaging service via an online patient portal.
Medical providers typically have an answering service for relaying after-hours messages, and some offices may offer a nurse line, where you can call in with your questions.
Where does the provider have hospital privileges? If you favor a specific hospital, you’ll want to make sure that the medical provider you’re considering has privileges to see your child at that facility, in the event your child needs care there.
How do you handle referrals? Ask the medical provider about his or her referral process for specialists. Some providers may be limited to referring your child to someone who is practicing in the same health care network or at certain medical institutions.
Taking these questions into consideration can help you narrow down your choices for medical providers. After you’ve narrowed down the candidates, call the provider’s office and verify that he or she is accepting new patients and that the office accepts your insurance.
When you child’s needs are more complex
If your child has a chronic health condition or complex health care needs, visits to your child’s medical provider are often more frequent and you may have additional appointments with other specialists.
For example, a child with asthma may see several medical providers in addition to his or her primary medical provider. These providers might include a respiratory specialist, an allergist, or an ear, nose and throat doctor. For a child with autism, a social worker, a mental health specialist, a developmental pediatrician, occupational and physical therapists, and speech and language therapists may be part of the team. Coordinating all of this care can be a full-time job. And, in fact, it is.
Many medical practices are aware of the burden that care coordination places on families. As a solution, a growing number of medical providers are offering the services of a care coordinator. A medical practice or health care organization that offers care coordination is sometimes referred to as a medical home. This means that it serves as a home base for most or all of your child’s health care needs.
After your child receives a diagnosis, a care coordinator facilitates communication between you, your child’s primary medical provider and appropriate specialists. Parents play an active role in care coordination, and their feedback is a critical component when creating a treatment plan.
The care coordinator uses input from your family, your primary medical provider and other specialists to help set up a treatment plan for your child. In addition, the care coordinator helps your child get access to services and resources in the community and at school. A care coordinator also serves as a gatekeeper of your child’s medical records, providing a central access point where all past test results and other health information can be stored.
Finding a practice that offers care coordination may be worth consideration if your child requires more complex care involving one or more specialists. Some research has shown that such coordinated care may result in advantages, such as fewer emergency room visits and school absences, and lower out-of-pocket expenses for families.
In some cases, care coordination may not be available. Whether you ultimately find a medical home or not, you might find it useful to keep an up-to-date written record of your child’s medical history that’s quickly and easily accessible. This could be an app, an online document, or a notebook or planner.
The important thing is to detail information such as vaccinations, hospitalizations, sick plans, allergies, medications, appointments, insurance and pharmacy information, and anything else that will help coordinate treatment. You can bring the information with you to your child’s medical appointments or on vacation, in case of an emergency.
The National Center for Medical Home Implementation has a wide range of printable pages and other resources to help you get your recordkeeping started. Go to the center’s website and visit the section for families and caregivers.
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