Big family visits, dinners in restaurants, crowded events and celebrations. Several months into the coronavirus pandemic, these are the things we are learning to do without. But one thing you cannot do without is caring for your child’s health through regular pediatrician visits.
We talked with two pediatricians from the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital to learn why — and what they are doing to make it safe.
Don’t miss important vaccinations
During a baby’s first six months of life, they lose the protective antibodies gained from their mother and need vaccinations to help their immune system fight off common childhood illnesses like pertussis, tetanus and pneumonia, says Dr. Joy Elion, a pediatrician with UChicago Medicine.
“It’s important to vaccinate before they lose immunity from mom so they can fight off these diseases on their own,” she says. “Don’t think that if your child isn’t attending daycare that it’s fine to wait. It’s not the case.” Delaying or forgoing vaccinations disrupts herd immunity, potentially making more people in the community susceptible to diseases that have long been under control.
“I also want people to know that it’s super important to get a flu vaccine this year,” Dr. Elion says. “It’s key that we don’t have an outbreak of flu. We do have family flu clinics where you can make an appointment and get the whole family vaccinated at once.”
Why those well-child visits are so important
In addition to ensuring that your child’s vaccinations are up-to-date, physicians want to make sure your child is meeting developmental milestones. “That very first newborn visit is a hugely momentous occasion, but we do need to see your child at their other routine visits as well,” says Dr. Gary Fernando, clinical associate of pediatrics with UChicago Medicine. “There may not be vaccines scheduled at all of the visits, but we do developmental screenings where we measure weight, height and head circumference.”
Your pediatrician is trained to recognize even the most subtle developmental changes, especially throughout that first year of life. “At the 1-month visit, we do a very thorough cardiac exam where we look at the heart and growth overall because there are cardiac illnesses that can present themselves at that time,” says Dr. Fernando.
At 6 months old, your child’s nutritional needs change, they’re getting their first teeth and experiencing new foods. “At this age, we might start to see changes in weight — up or down — with different foods being introduced into their diet. If there are celiac disease concerns with the introduction of gluten, for example, they can be diagnosed in the first year of life,” he says.
As we are spending less time around others, we have fewer opportunities to compare milestones, making it even more important to attend visits with the pediatrician, says Dr. Elion. “Before, you could compare what your kids were doing, but now we don’t have that baseline to see what others are doing, so an important way to know your child is on par is to come in and do a screening,” she says.
Convenience is important for busy parents, so UChicago Medicine pediatric offices make sure that patients — even new patients — can schedule appointments within a week, and in most cases, within three to five days. “Each day, we reserve some same-day appointments for children who are sick and need to be seen right away,” says Dr. Fernando.
What if your child needs specialist care?
The comprehensive children’s health program throughout the UChicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital health network means that pediatric specialists are close by if needed — sometimes they are even on the same floor. This is a reassuring detail for families who learn their children need specialized care.
“If I have a concern about a child’s hips, for example, I can go down the hall to the pediatric orthopedic doctors and get a referral for you and see if there are any x-rays that need to be ordered before my patient goes to see them,” Dr. Fernando says. “The collaboration in our health care system is so wonderful and as a pediatrician, I appreciate having specialty colleagues right here with us. Knowing we have the ability to make referrals and keep the continuity of care intact is very reassuring, especially now as we are trying to keep everyone as distanced as possible. If we can save you a trip, that’s a benefit.”
Older kids and teens who are not attending school in-person and may be struggling no longer have the outlet of daily interactions with peers, teachers or counselors. “It’s important for them to have space to express themselves, and we have resources and can refer parents if their kids need counseling or have stress,” says Dr. Elion. “We have the tools they need.”
Keeping your family safe
Maintaining your family’s health is the highest priority for UChicago Medicine, so you’ll see some extra measures in place to create a safe environment you’ll feel comfortable visiting with your child. “We have primary care pediatric clinics within Comer Children’s Hospital, as well as in Chicago’s South Loop and in Flossmoor. At all sites, families are met at the door by someone who will screen for any symptoms including fever, cough, runny nose, intestinal upset and diarrhea, and will do a temperature check,” Dr. Elion explains. “Any patient with symptoms is fast-tracked through an expedited check-in and put in a room as soon as possible.” The clinic strictly adheres to a correctly worn mask policy for everyone 2 and older.
“It’s a very safe environment, with no crowds of people,” Dr. Elion says. “It’s actually one of the safer things you can do right now.”
In addition to proper safety equipment and rigorous hygiene practices, every employee undergoes frequent refresher training to review the important basics. “Our infectious disease teams meet continually to revise processes and offer clinical recommendations, so you will see us wearing masks and protective equipment like goggles and eye protection,” Dr. Fernando says. Physicians can determine over the phone whether or not your child should be tested for COVID-19 and can do curbside testing, even for young children.
In some cases, virtual appointments can work, too. “Rashes are a perfect thing to diagnose through a telehealth visit,” says Dr. Fernando. “Or we can follow up with ADHD medications over the phone rather than bring a child back every few months. This is especially helpful for families that can’t take a half-day off work for a doctor’s appointment or for those who might have to deal with the safety issues of public transportation. That’s where pediatric video visits can be of benefit.”
Many health care facilities can provide excellent care for children in Chicago and the Midwest. But only Comer Children’s Hospital can bring the “bench to bedside” scientific expertise of the University of Chicago Medicine, combined with our personal, family-centered approach to provide an atmosphere of hope and healing. For more information, visit comerchildrens.org.