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Understanding how to best take care of your child's health

By Jennifer Dillaha, MD • Arkansas Department of Health

Most people have had trouble at some point in their life knowing what to do to take care of a health problem. This is especially true for those who are the parent of a baby or small child. Any new parent can tell there is a lot to learn when a new baby joins your family, and the need to learn more keeps growing as your child gets older. It seems there is always something new to deal with, especially if your child gets sick. So it's no wonder that parents sometimes feel unsure or even confused about how to best take care of their child. If that ever happens to you, you are not alone, because most Arkansans (not just parents) have difficulty getting the health information they need and using it in a way that really helps them.

There are several reasons for this problem. First of all, the written information given to parents is often too technical for someone who doesn't work in health care to understand. Health information should be written in plain English. It should be simple to understand, but too often it is not. So if you receive something from a clinic or hospital that uses words in a way that do not make sense to you, it's not your fault! Please speak up and tell the doctor, nurse or someone in the clinic that the material is not helping you and that you need someone to explain it to you.

Secondly, sometimes when the doctor or nurse gives you instructions about what to do, they give you too much information all at once. When that happens, it's very easy to get confused. Too much information also makes it hard to remember what you are supposed to do when you get home. So if the information is too much, ask the doctor to slow down. Ask the doctor to explain to you: 1) What is your child's main problem? 2) What exactly are you supposed to do about it? And 3) Why is it important for you to do this? Once you have the answers to these questions, tell the doctor you want to explain it back to them to make sure you really understand what you are supposed to do. Explaining the instructions back to the doctor is called the "Teach-Back Method." Many doctors and nurses know about this method, so don't be surprised if they ask you first to explain their instructions back to them. Explaining the instructions back to the doctor gives you a chance to clear up any misunderstandings, and it also helps you remember what you need to do later on.

Next, our health care system is very complicated, so sometimes employees at the hospital, clinic and drugstore don't know what each other is doing to take care of your child. This is especially true if your child has an ongoing health problem, such as asthma or diabetes, and needs someone to coordinate between different doctors' offices. For that reason, it is important to go to one main doctor or nurse, who knows you and your child very well, and who can do the coordinating for you. Some people call this a "medical home" or a "health home." A "health home" is important because it is easier to ask questions about the things you don't understand. It is a clinic that families generally go to for a long time so more than likely you will feel more comfortable talking to the people there about your child's health.

And finally, visits to the doctor are often very short, so it is hard to learn everything you need to know about taking care of your child when you are there. Fortunately, there are other places you can go to get the skills you need to take care of your child. For example, many daycares that are part of Arkansas Better Chance or Early Head Start programs provide support to parents who want to learn more about how to better care for their children. There also are several home visiting programs in Arkansas that work closely with parents to help them get the skills they need to take the best care of their children possible. They include HIPPY, Parents as Teachers, and THRIVE.

All of these things can add up and make it very hard for parents to get the information they need to take good care of their children. Naturally, we all want to be good moms and dads, so it can be really embarrassing to speak up and admit that we don't understand what to do. We tend to think that it's our fault we don't understand. We even worry that others will think we're stupid. The real problem, though, is that the information has not been presented well. It has not been given to us in a way that meets our needs. However, if we speak up, we can get the help we need to improve our own understanding. And, we can also help our doctors, nurses, healthcare clinics and hospitals, do a better job of taking care of our families.

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