As a child, my mother would take me to the doctor when I was sick or had a regular check-up. I thought people simply went in to see the doctor, answered any questions, and then did what the doctor said. From my childhood perspective, it seemed that healthcare was pretty much one-sided.
As I grew up, I learned more about maintaining a healthy lifestyle and my role to play in ensuring my own health care. I started to realise that I needed to pay attention to my own body and that many factors might be contributing to a medical condition. Diagnosis and treatment is not always as simple as we wish it would be. I learned I needed to ask my own questions to the doctor to make sure I understood what they were prescribing and why. I understood the importance of following through with the recommendations made, and keeping accurate records so I could figure out what the best treatments were for me as an individual.
Fast forward to this point in my life, after almost 9 years being married to a doctor. After becoming a doctor’s wife and learning more about what goes on behind the scenes, I have gained a whole new appreciation of doctors. I now know that doctors need to know a massive amount of information as the cases they see every day can range from minor scrapes to life-threatening conditions. I now know that doctors need to continually learn about medicine and that their journey for medical knowledge is never-ending. I now appreciate the importance of doctors communicating with patients, and patients communicating with doctors as well.
I hope to use these life experiences to help my kids develop a fuller understanding of healthcare and their role to play, even from a young age. I don’t think my kids need to wait as long as I did to understand more about healthcare and how they can get involved. A doctor does a lot behind the scenes, and I want my kids to appreciate that. I also want them to learn that they have an active part to play in taking care of their own health, now as well as later.
Here are five ways I’m preparing my kids to be advocates for their own health.
#1 Understand what happens when they visit the doctor.
When my kids were toddlers, we did a lot of doctor role play. Having a play doctor kit helped them become familiar with the instruments in the doctors office… stethoscope, thermometer, tongue depressor, etc… so they could start to understand what these tools did and why. There are lots of great storybooks available to give children an idea of what happens when they visit the doctor, and we also enjoyed the Sesame Street: Elmo Visits the Doctor DVD.
Resources like these helped start the “what happens when we visit the doctor” conversation and allowed me to more fully brief my child on how their appointment would go because they had role played and/or seen pictures. This way, when they were asked to open their mouth, remove their shirt, or whatever the case may be, they were not only more agreeable, but they understood why the doctor was asking them to do that. This is the first step to being an empowered patient!
A little tip: If your child has a special toy that will make them feel more comfortable during their visit to the doctor, bring it along! Anything to help them relax can help the visit go more smoothly… which is great for the child, as well as the parent and the doctor!
#2 Learn about the human body.
In order to be an active patient, you need to understand what the doctor says. Toddlers can learn body parts, so when the doctor says “I am going to check your eyes” or “I am going to check your knees” they can be ready and feel a part of the process. Older kids can learn commonly used terminology such as “blood pressure” or “medical family history” so they can eventually start to answer questions themselves. They can learn their blood type, learn to check their own weight, and the list goes on.
Some of our favourite resources to learn about the human body have been:
• See Inside Your Body (a lift-the-flap book by Usborne Flap Books)
• My First Human Body Book (a colouring book by Dover Children’s Science Books)
I think it is helpful for kids to realise just how much doctors have to know, so they can appreciate the amount of information a doctor may be working through as they assess them in the office. Here’s a fun fact for the kids: GPs have to be knowledgeable in 22,000 different illnesses!
In Australia, 90% of Australian GPs rely on the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) for professional development, to set industry standards and to support them in continually evolving and bettering their modern medical care and knowledge. Kids can easily appreciate that doctors are increasing their knowledge because this is what they do in school. My son often likes to ask the doctors what they have been learning about recently, especially as he knows his daddy is always studying new things to become a better doctor!
#3 Prepare for the visit.
I like to be prepared for our visit to the doctor by writing a list of concerns to cover during our appointment. The doctor is doing a whole lot behind the scenes and, to respect this, I think it is a patient’s role to bring their part to the table as well. I try to do my best to take notes of our symptoms and keep detailed records on things like temperatures, changes in diet, or any other relevant information so I don’t forget it when I’m midway through the appointment. The more information we can provide, the better our GP can help. If you go in without specifics, how can you expect to get accurate answers? I hope by setting this example, my kids will follow suit.
One more point: I see our GP as someone who has a special role to play in our family’s life – they are our specialist in life, for life. They know our entire family’s medical history and are the first point of contact when we need medical attention. Therefore, I think it’s important to teach my kids to know the GP’s name. It has also been helpful get to know a few other GPs in the practice so that the kids are comfortable in case we need to make a last minute appointment with someone other than our regular doctor. Having a familiar face is important when a child doesn’t feel well.
#4 Practice good communication skills.
Communication can make (and break) a doctor-patient relationship. Kids are learning from what we as parents model. So when we practice good communication skills in the doctor’s office like speaking clearly, giving enough information for the doctor to work with, and ensuring we understand everything correctly by asking questions for clarification when we need to, they are learning these skills too. I want to help my kids learn to take an active role in their health care, so they can feel empowered through their doctors visits and truly understand how their treatments work. Learning these skills will be crucial to satisfactory health care throughout their lives.
I think it is great for kids to develop a positive relationship with their GP as well as all other medical staff, by giving them plenty of opportunities to practice speaking with medical professionals. If you know doctors or other health professionals personally, be sure to point this out to your child. I think it is important kids learn to feel comfortable and and not be intimidated by a stethoscope or uniform.
#5 Foster the mindset that each person has an active part to play in their health care.
Besides regular doctors appointments, kids can get involved in wider health care issues. Some ideas include: offering an act of kindness for your doctor and his or her staff, taking part in community fundraisers and events raising awareness about various medical conditions (such as fun runs or 5K walks), learning about advances in medical research via news or magazines, and spending time discussing and researching any questions related to medicine that the kids have. I find personally that the more I learn about the human body and appreciate the science of medicine, the more empowered I feel to ask questions and care for my own health. I would love my kids to develop this appreciation throughout their lives as well.
The doctor-patient relationship is so much more than an appointment. I want my kids to learn to value medical expertise, as well as develop awareness and confidence to be an advocate for their own health care. I want them to see the GP as a resource person in their lives to go to whenever they have medical problems – physical or psychological – and know that their doctor is on their team working as the specialist in their life.
Do your kids like going to visit the doctor? What are you doing to foster a sense of empowerment in your kids to care for their health?