Help Us Help You! Make the most out of phone calls

Hello.  This is Dr. Stuppy.  I’m returning your call about…

That’s how my phone calls start, then they take various turns. Some are easy, some not so easy. I’d like to discuss what makes a phone call to the doctor’s office more productive, so we can help you better.

All examples are entirely fictitious, made up of 18 + years of phone call experiences.

Many calls start off like this:

Hi. This is Mary Sue. My son has a rash and I want to know what to do.

Me: ?????

I must ask many questions for more information.

Some callers don’t seem to know what to say, so they only answer direct questions.  How old is your son? When did the rash start? What does it look like? Has it changed? Does it itch or hurt? Any other symptoms? What have you used to treat it? Did that help? Has he had any new ingestions, lotions, or creams? Does he have a history of allergies? Anyone else with a rash that looks like this?

On and on…

Other calls start like this:

Hi.  Thanks for calling back. My son Jack is 3 years old. Well, really his birthday isn’t until next month, but he’s almost 3. He has had a fever for 2 days, maybe 3 days because he felt warm but he wasn’t acting funny or sick that first day he felt warm so I didn’t check his temperature. He actually was fussy last week, but I don’t think he ever had a fever then. I was thinking maybe he didn’t sleep well last week, but I don’t know why. I took his temperature and it was 100.3, that was on Tuesday around 7am. I gave Tylenol, and it went down to 97.9, but then 4 hours later it was back up to 99.7….

My thoughts so far: Get to the point.

Sorry, but that’s true. I care about my patients, but so far this phone call has taken me quite a bit of time and I really know nothing except this almost 3 year old has an elevated temperature (not even a true fever). I don’t even know what the parent’s main concern is.

just the facts, MA’AM.

When parents call, they need to summarize with pertinent facts. While they shouldn’t leave out important helpful information, they don’t need to mention every time they took a temperature.

Much like the evening news: they can’t do a play by play of every football game. There’s no time and it serves no purpose. A few highlights of the game and the score. That works well. People get a pretty good idea of how the game went.

It’s the same thing with phone calls to your doctor’s office or on call provider.  We have thousands of patients. Not all call, but during peak cold and flu season, there are many calls all day and night. The phone nurse or on call provider simply can’t spend 15 minutes chatting about every detail. That’s for your friend and you to discuss over coffee.

During the cold and flu season, it’s not uncommon for me to be on the phone with one parent when another call comes in. This is at the same time I’m trying get groceries or do other things I need to do for my family on evenings and weekends. (Being on call after hours doesn’t mean that I don’t have to work during the day.) I really don’t want to sit and chat. I don’t have time for play by play action. Again, I really care about my patients, but I can do a better job at answering your questions if you are clear and concise. 

Things that help us help you:

Know what’s going on.

When a parent calls and the child is at daycare or grandma’s so the caller doesn’t know details, we can’t really help. Yes, parents have called for advice when they’re on their way to daycare but don’t know any more than the child has to be picked up due to a symptom such as vomiting, fever or pink eye.

See your child first or have the person with the child call us. When you pick up the child, ask for details of their day. Learn how they ate/drank, how they acted, etc.

Sometimes you’ve been up several nights in a row with a sick child and things get jumbled in your head. It happens.

Write down the pertinent facts to get them straight if you need to.

Start with your child’s full name and birth date.

I can’t tell you how often parents jump right into their worries without stating who their child is. This is important not only for chart documentation of the call but also so we know how old your child is.

Include any significant past history, such as your infant was born at 28 weeks gestation, or your coughing 3 year old has a history of wheezing.

Give pertinent facts related to the concern.

If your child has a fever, give the number of days of fever, the maximum temperature, and how it was taken.

If you have given a fever reducer, share that.

Find a quiet place to talk.

When my kids were little they always wanted to be held when they were sick. I get it.

If you’re on the phone and they’re crying in your arms, it’s very hard to have a conversation.

Please find a safe place for your child to rest while we talk if possible.

If they won’t leave you or stay quiet, have another adult talk to us after they’ve been briefed about all the symptoms.

Summarize symptoms and treatments.

Briefly describe symptoms and what you have done to help them as well as how your child responded to the treatment.

Mention All treatments

If you use a vaporizer or saline for a cold, or have stopped dairy and used gatorade for vomiting, let us know. If you use a traditional home remedy, please let us know.

Let us know any medications your child typically takes in addition to ones you have tried for the current symptoms.

Signs and symptoms can be tricky to describe

When there’s a rash, it’s typically best for us to see it, but if you call about a rash describe it in terms of location, color, and size. Many find it helpful to relate to common objects, such as quarter-sized.

Note if there is a pattern to the symptoms, such as headache every day after school or barky cough only at night.

Summarize, don’t tell a novel

Leave out details that don’t help. Trends and generalizations work well.

If we want more details, we can always ask.

Avoid words that could be interpreted other ways, use facts.

Commonly misused words are “lethargic” and “fever.”

Lethargy in a medical sense is ominous. Many parents use it when their child is only mildly ill and tired. Describe what you’re seeing instead. Saying “Johnny won’t even wake enough to drink or hold his cup,” gives me the thought he is lethargic. Saying “Johnny wants to sit on my lap and read books instead of playing with his sister,” shows that he’s not well, but definitely not lethargic.

Fever is a temperature over 100.4 F. Many parents use the word fever if their child feels warm to touch. It’s more clear if you state that they’re warm to touch or what the thermometer says and how you took it.


Examples of good call starters:

Start with name, birth date, summary

I’m calling about Joe Smith, birth date 9.12.08. He has had a fever for 3 days, up to 101.3 under the arm. It comes down with ibuprofen, but is right back up in 6 hours. He also has sore throat and headache. He’s drinking well but not eating much for 3 days.

I know this child’s name, age, pattern of fever and associated symptoms. The only thing I need now is the parent’s concern – so far they’ve been doing everything right. What made them call today? What’s their question?

Describe

Sally Smith, birth date 9.12.17, has vomited 6 times in the past 12 hours. If I give formula it immediately comes up. She is now dry heaving and hasn’t had a wet diaper in 12 hours. She doesn’t have a fever but looks tired and it is hard to wake her to drink. She doesn’t have diarrhea. Her older brother had the stomach flu a few days ago but is now better.

Again, I know the child’s name and age and main problem – especially the fact that she sounds dehydrated. The parent didn’t use this word, but described dehydration (no wet diaper in 12 hours and it’s hard to wake her to drink). 

Include pertinent history

John Smith, birth date 9.12.17, was in the NICU for 2 months due to prematurity. He has been fussy all day and is now breathing fast and hard and is not able to drink more than a few sucks at a time. He doesn’t have a fever, but I’m really worried.

Here I know the child’s age and that he was significantly premature – a big risk factor. He’s distressed because he can’t feed. Note: I made this baby not have a fever on purpose. He’s sick even without a fever. 

Getting More Information

Knowing where to get reliable information is important. There’s a lot of bad advice online. Fancy websites aren’t always reliable.

Sites I recommend:

The AAP has many resources on HealthyChildren.

KidsHealth is another great resource.

My office’s website, PediatricPartnersKC, also has many pearls of wisdom. Often when we give advice it’s already stated on our site. Parents sometimes call multiple times because they can’t remember what we said. This is frustrating on both ends of the phone. We wrote it down and made it easily available for a reason. Use our site! (For patients in other practices, check out your own pediatrician’s site.)

Things that cannot be done by on call providers – at least not well:

Prior authorization for an ER or urgent care visit that is already done.

Prior authorizations are not usually needed, but if they are required, we should talk to you to be sure the visit is necessary before you go.

If I didn’t send you to the ER, I can’t fill out paperwork saying I did. That’s lying and using my license inappropriately. Often I would have chosen another location or given home care instructions to get you through the night.

Of course if you do talk to me (or one of my partners) overnight and we do send you to an urgent care or ER, we are happy to fill out forms if needed by insurance.

“Allow” you to leave a busy ER.

It sounds silly, but I have had many calls from the waiting room at ER/Urgent Cares with parents asking if I think it okay that they leave due to a long wait. If you thought it necessary to go in the first place, I would be open to a malpractice lawsuit if I told you to go home without being seen.

You should ask their triage nurse who can make that assessment.

Refill medications.

I typically expect that your child is seen prior to most prescription refills for best medical care. If it’s urgent that your child have a refill, such as an inhaler, they should be seen to evaluate the concern.

There are exceptions to every rule, but don’t be upset if the on call provider or phone nurse refuses to call out a prescription.

This is in the best interest of your child, not to be difficult. It’s easier to just call in the script than it is to argue this point, believe me. But easier isn’t better care, and that’s what’s important.

Make a diagnosis.

We cannot see the ear, listen to the lungs, or feel the belly over the phone. A physical exam and sometimes labs or radiology studies are needed to make a diagnosis. If your doctor claims to be able to diagnose by phone to call out prescriptions, I would suggest that they’re not doing the best of care.

An example of a poor diagnosis by phone:

Just this week another child was seen in my office for a sore throat that wasn’t better on the amoxicillin prescribed by a telemedicine doctor through their insurance company. The exam clearly showed blisters on the child’s throat. The sore throat was from these blisters, which are from a virus, not a bacteria.

The antibiotic was never needed. In this case the child simply didn’t get better as expected with a presumed case of Strep throat, but fortunately she didn’t get diarrhea or have an allergic reaction to the antibiotic. Who knows if this contributed to more bacterial resistance and superbugs?

Not only did the family waste money on an unnecessary treatment, they also exposed their child to a treatment that could have caused harm.

I worry with the increasing use of telehealth that we will see more problems related to improper diagnoses and delay of proper diagnoses – some of which could be significant.

Swallowed poisons or medicine / drug overdose.

The United States has a great poison control system. They can give rapid advice that most doctors don’t have easily available.

Call (800) 222-1222 if you suspect your child has ingested something. PUT THIS NUMBER IN YOUR PHONE RIGHT NOW.

A visit’s better than a phone call for:  

Difficulty breathing.

If a child is having difficulty breathing and you don’t have treatments at home that work, he needs to be seen as soon as possible.

Dehydration.

An infant who hasn’t urinated in 6-8 hours or an older child who hasn’t urinated in 12 hours might be dehydrated and should be seen as soon as possible.

Some fevers.

Temperature above 100.4 F in an infant under 3 months or in an under immunized child can be serious and should be seen as soon as possible.

Fevers lasting more than 3-5 days or with other concerning symptoms require an evaluation.

Fevers are scary and can make kids miserable. There is no “magic” temperature that we worry about more. Look at how your child is acting, not the thermometer, to determine if they are sick. Not every child with a fever needs to even be treated. There is benefit to letting the fever do its job!

Uncontrollable pain.

If you’ve used standard pain relievers and your child is still hurting, we cannot do anything by phone that will improve the situation. A careful exam might find a treatable cause of pain.

Most rashes.

Though these don’t necessarily need to be seen emergently unless there are other concerns, rashes cannot be evaluated on the phone and a physical exam is needed.

If your child is otherwise well appearing, treat the symptoms of the rash.

If he’s otherwise sick and you’re concerned, then he should be seen.

Chronic problems.

If your child has been dealing with anything for more than a few days, it might help to schedule a visit with your usual provider. This is especially true if it relates to a chronic condition, such as asthma, constipation, or other issue.

Many parents deal with a problem for months (or years) but have NEVER been in to discuss it specifically. They might mention it at another visit as an aside, but we never really talk about it in depth and give it the attention it deserves.

Diagnosis vs information.

If you want a diagnosis, we need to see your child.  We cannot tell if the ear is infected or if your child has Strep based on symptoms alone.

If you want advice of what to do with symptoms, we can generally give advice. Remember that the websites above can be helpful with this type of information too!

Behavior problems.

These are best discussed with your usual provider, not an on-call provider who doesn’t know your child. Most of these build up over time and are not emergent issues.

If it is an emergent issue, such as a child is in physical danger due to his actions or if a child is threatening another person, call 911.

If your child is suicidal, call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Injuries.

If your child has a significant injury, they often require prompt evaluation. Call 911 before calling your doctor’s office if your child is seriously injured.

Lacerations must be repaired as soon as possible, so don’t wait until office hours the next day if there’s a gaping wound!

Minor bumps and bruises can be handled at home, but if you’re not sure, give us a call to discuss what happened.

Help me help you!

Let me know what else you need to know to be an educated caller.

I’d be happy to answer questions about when to call, what to ask, and what to expect.

If I left any questions unanswered, please ask!


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Sleep Deprived Teens: Health, Safety, & Mental Well Being Are At Significant Risk

Teens do not get enough sleep. Most teens need 8.5-10 hours of sleep each night. Not 6 hours. Not even 8 hours. Most don’t get even close to meeting their needs and that’s a bigger deal than many realize. Sleep is very undervalued, but we need to prioritize it.

Why don’t teens get enough sleep?

One of the most common reasons is that their biological clock (AKA circadian rhythm) makes it hard to fall asleep before 11 pm and school starts too early to allow them to sleep until 8 am, which would allow for 9 hours.

In addition to their circadian rhythm, some of their habits and activities can interfere with a healthy bedtime.

Screens are a big problem.

The light interferes with our natural melatonin rising. I regularly ask teens (and parents) to limit screen use for at least an hour before bedtime, but most teens say that’s impossible because they have to finish their homework at that time and they need their computer or tablet to do homework. If you can’t turn off the screen, at least use a program that limits the blue light that prevents the rise of melatonin. I personally use f.lux. (It’s free and works on PC, Mac, ipad, android, and Linux). I find that it really helps. (This is not a paid endorsement, just a personal statement.)

Phones.

On a similar note, phones distract kids from what they’re doing, delaying falling asleep. It takes longer to finish homework when there are distractions from the phone. Kids often are tempted to check in one more time on all their social channels, which delays sleep time. And then friends who are still up will text to see who’s up (or who they can wake up).

Activities are too late. 

I’m not talking about kids just out and about on a school night. I’m talking about regularly scheduled activities that otherwise help build a well rounded person. It’s not uncommon for activities to be scheduled to run until 9:30 or 10 on school nights for middle and high school aged kids. They get home and are hungry, need a shower, and are ramped up so not ready for sleep.

Activities start too early.

I know many kids who must be at school before school actually starts. Whether it’s band practice, church study groups, sports, or taking a missed test before school, they all interfere with sleeping in, which is what teens need.

School starts too early.

Most school districts around the country start school well before the recommended 8:30 earliest start time. School districts that have initiated later start times have shown improved test scores, fewer absences and tardies, less depression, improved athletic performance, and better graduation rates. Unfortunately, those schools are still in the minority.

Medical causes of sleep deprivation and fatigue can also occur. 

If you suspect any of these, you should schedule a visit with your doctor.

  1. Anxiety
  2. Restless leg syndrome
  3. Sleep apnea – pausing of breath, often associated with snoring
  4. Medications that affect sleep cycles
  5. Heartburn or acid reflux
  6. Hormone imbalances, such as thyroid problems
  7. Anemia, or low red blood cell counts
  8. Depression
  9. Nutrition: not eating enough, or eating foods that are not nutritious. If you eat foods that cause spikes in your blood sugar, as those sugars drop you feel fatigued.
  10. Infections
  11. Celiac disease
  12. Chronic pain conditions
  13. Chronic sleep deprivation – I know this is counter-intuitive, but being tired can make it harder to sleep.

 What happens with too little sleep?

sleep is needed
Teens who are sleep deprived suffer in many ways. Make sleep a priority!

Sleep deprivation can lead to many problems that are often not attributed to poor sleep, such as irritability, poor academic performance, accidents, obesity and more.

Moodiness.

We all associate the teen years with angst, so we can easily attribute a teen’s moodiness to just being a teen. But being chronically tired can lead to emotional dysregulation. This will look like irritability, frustration and anger.

School problems. 

It has been well established that getting proper amounts of sleep can help with focus and learning. When our teens fail to get enough sleep, they often report problems with attention, memory, decision making, reaction time, and creativity. It’s no surprise that teens report problems paying attention to a lecture or trouble completing homework in a reasonable time with full accuracy. Grades can easily fall, which leads to anxiety and depression, which in turn leads to more moodiness and trouble sleeping.

Sleep deprivation mimics ADHD. Whenever I see a teen who wants to be evaluated for ADHD because of new loss of focus, falling grades, problems with behavior, or similar issues, I always look at sleep. Most often they don’t have ADHD if this is a new problem. They need more sleep, not a stimulant medication. You can’t put a band aide on a broken bone. Fix the problem, not the symptoms! (The same goes for a teen with ADHD who thinks the medicine that’s worked for years suddenly isn’t sufficient. Unless the medicine recently changed, they need sleep.)

Injuries.

Teens with chronic sleep deprivation are more likely to be accidentally injured.

Drowsy driving is comparable to drunk driving. Teens are at the highest risk for falling asleep at the wheel. Drowsy driving is the most likely to occur in the middle of the night (2-4 am), but also in mid-afternoon (3- 4pm) as teens drive home from school.

Athletes are more likely to be injured while playing their sport, so it is in the best interest of the team to let players sleep.

Risky behaviors. 

Teens with chronic sleep deprivation have been shown to participate in more risk taking behaviors, such as driving without a seatbelt, drinking alcohol, skipping the bike helmet and tobacco use.

Pros and Cons of later school start times for our economy

There are many temporary issues with changing school start times. Parents might have to find solutions to child care of younger kids if they rely on teens babysitting after school. New bus schedules need to be started. Sports programs will need to change practice times. After school job availabilities will change.
Despite these common arguments, economic analysis from the Brookings Institution shows that a one hour delay of school start times could lead to a $17,500 earnings gain for students, compared to a cost of $1,950 during the student’s school days.
Another study that presumed all students start school at 8:30, with a year-by-year economic effect. The study did not take into account other potential benefits of later school start times, such as decreased depression and obesity rates. They found an average annual gain of about $9.3 billion due to fewer automotive accidents, improved graduation rates, and other factors.

What can teens do to get more zzzz’s?

Go to bed when tired at night.

Fighting sleep initially will make it harder to go to sleep when you finally go to bed.

Attempt to follow a regular sleep schedule.

Going to bed and getting up at about the same time every day helps. While sleeping in on weekends can help repair a sleep deficit, it can make it harder to get to sleep Sunday night and getting sufficient sleep every night is better than just getting more sleep a few days/week. Try to sleep in no more than 2 hours past your school day wake up time.

Follow the same routine each night at bedtime.

Brush teeth, read a book or color, take a bath or shower — do whatever helps you wind down and relax. Repeating this every night can help your brain get ready for bed.

Nap to help make up missed sleep.

A short 15-20 minute nap after school can help revitalize the brain to get homework done. Just don’t sleep too long or it can interfere with bedtime.

Turn off the screens an hour before bedtime.

This includes tv, computer games, computer/tablet use for homework, and smartphones for socializing. Use night mode screen lighting and apps that dim the screen (like the f.lux app I mentioned above).

Avoid caffeine in the later afternoon.

The time it takes half of the caffeine to be removed from your body is 5-6 hours. Ideally teens would sleep and never drink caffeine, but I know that isn’t reality. Any caffeine in the later afternoon can make it harder to fall to sleep. Don’t forget “hidden” sources of caffeine, such as chocolate, energy bars, and workout supplements.

One interesting concept that has scientific backing (but goes against the “no caffeine after 3 pm” rule) is the coffee nap. Basically, you drink coffee then quickly nap for 15-20 minutes. Sodas and teas don’t work as well as coffee due to too much sugar and too little caffeine. The coffee nap has been shown to be more effective than either a nap or caffeine alone. Don’t do this often — use it at times you really need it. Don’t do this too late in the day or the caffeine will inhibit your regular night’s sleep.

Skip the snooze button.

Set your alarm for the last possible moment you can, which allows your body to get those extra minutes of sleep. If you need to get out of bed by 6:45, but set your alarm for 6:15 and hit snooze several times, you aren’t sleeping those 30 minutes. Set your alarm for 6:45!

Skip the late night studying.

Studying too late is ineffective. When the brain’s tired it won’t learn as well and you will make mistakes more readily. It takes a lot longer to get anything done when you’re tired. Go to bed and get up a little earlier to get the work finished if needed. Of course you should also look at your time management if this happens too often. Are you involved in too many activities? Do you work or volunteer too many hours? Did you waste too much time on tv, games, or socializing? Do you put off big projects until the last minute? Homework needs to take priority when you’re more alert in the afternoon and evening. If you have problems with this, talk to parents and teachers about what you can do.

If you lay awake for hours or wake frequently, try these techniques to help fall asleep: 

If these fail, talk to your parents and doctor to help find a solution.

Charge your phone in another room. 

Friends who decide to text in the middle of the night keep you from sleeping. Even phones on silent have blinking lights that can spark your curiosity. It’s too tempting to look at your social media apps one more time.

Don’t use the excuse that you need your phone as an alarm. Alarm clocks are cheap. Get one and put your phone elsewhere!

Use your bed for sleep only.

Stop doing homework in bed. Stop watching YouTube and Netflix in bed. Train your brain that your bed is where you sleep.

Exercise.

Exercise helps our bodies sleep better, but it should ideally be earlier in the day. Too close to bedtime (which is common with athletes and dancers) wires us up.

Get natural sunlight in the morning. 

This helps to set your circadian rhythm.

Keep the bedroom cool and dark.

It is harder to sleep if the room is too warm or too bright. A fan can be used to circulate air.

Use blackout shades if needed.

Keep pets out of the bedroom. 

Your animals might love you and you love them, but if they keep you up, it’s just not worth having them around at night.

Nicotine and alcohol affect sleep.

These should not be used by teens in an ideal world, but I know teens will not always follow the rules. Teens should know that if they are using nicotine or alcohol, their quality of sleep will be affected.

Nicotine is a stimulant (like caffeine), which leads to more time sleeping lightly and less time in deep sleep. And yes, vaping and chewing lead to this problem too, since it’s the nicotine that causes the problem.

Alcohol reduces the time it takes to fall asleep but it increases sleep disturbances in the second half of the night, often leading to early wakening. Alcohol relaxes muscles, which can lead to sleep apnea (often noted as snoring). Sleep apnea does not allow the body to have restful sleep. Alcohol is also a diuretic, which might increase the need to wake to go to the bathroom during the night.

We all need to prioritize sleep: for our kids and for ourselves. Our bodies and minds will thank us.

Resources:

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