13 Ways To Prepare For An Emergency Department Visit With Your Child-Answered By A Pediatric Emergency Physician

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by Dr. Christopher Haines

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03.24.2022

13 Ways To Prepare For An Emergency Department Visit With Your Child- Answered By A Pediatric Emergency Physician

Kids Health Secrets | BlueEmerald Wellness

Children's emergency department entrance sign

Are you prepared for an emergency department visit with your child? Learn how to be safe and comfortable if your family experiences this stressful situation. 

I have been a practicing pediatric emergency physician for over 20 years and as a parent and a physician, I know that one of a parent’s greatest fears is that they will have to take their child to the emergency department (ED). What should you bring? What do they need? We are here to help provide information on what items parents should keep in their go-bag for an emergency department visit.

Emergencies, whether precautionary or for a major trauma, are scary, especially when it is your child. There are a few things you can do in advance that will help the doctors and nurses caring for your child.

If possible, when you have to come to the ED, bring items that will make your child comfortable. A small pillow, hard to find in an ED, can be an amazing help as well as something to keep them occupied. As hard as we try to make the pediatric emergency department kid friendly, it’s still an ED. You may be there awhile and it can be scary for a child

1) Know your child’s medical history

stack of medical files in an office

Have your child’s medical and surgical history, pediatrician’s name and practice, pharmacy location and number, and a list of his or her current medications and allergies. Having this information handy may not seem important, but during an emergency it may expedite the delivery of care and treatment your child receives.

Doctors and nurses understand that working parents may have several different caregivers – day care, baby sitters, grandparents. That is why having a child’s medical history available is so vitally important. Even dads come to the ED not knowing their child’s medical history. So, create a clear, written medical history and carry it in your purse or wallet and give a copy to every person caring for your child. It is easy and simple to do and can prove a huge help. Conversely, not knowing your child’s medical history can make it challenging for us to provide the appropriate treatment.

2) Come to the emergency department with your child

It is also important to understand that a grandparent or non-parent caregiver generally cannot give consent for your child’s treatment. We will always treat your child for emergencies with implied consent when a child is unstable or critically ill, but in all other circumstances, we must secure consent for care from a parent. We will call to get consent and continue calling frequently until we reach you. We will also ask you to come into the ED if available.

3) Must haves prior to an emergency visit

phone connected to a power bank charger

Additionally, think about things you might need, make a list and have them ready to bring if needed.

One of the biggest items I would recommend is a phone charger/power bank. This is super common in the ED; we have parents asking for chargers. Most of us have them sometime and may be willing to lend but it’s not a guarantee. Best bet is to bring one with you.

Also, it is always good to have some cash and a method of payment (credit card/debit card). First you may have a co-pay, but if you happen to have a long stay you may have to think about meals and drinks for yourself. Most commonly, you are responsible for this even when your child is admitted. Some really innovative hospital may allow you to order meals from the hospital, but this is not that common.

4) Child comfort items

asian girl in the emergency room with a stuffed animal

-Pillow

-Favorite stuffed animal

-Favorite small toy/tablet

-Extra clothes

-Snacks/drinks

-Parent comfort items

-Phone charger/power bank

-Cash/method of payment

5) Be calm and breathe

First and foremost, we are here to help you. It is difficult seeing your child scared, sick, injured and in pain. We understand. But you being visibly upset, or worse, hysterical and demanding, will not help your child. As healthcare providers, we have all been yelled and screamed at by stressed and upset parents, but you having a meltdown is not going to help us streamline and deliver the best care. Your job as a parent is to be supportive of your child while being focused and interactive with the medical team. We invite appropriate questions because it helps develop a mutual respect. So be calm and present for your child. Or, at the very least, try.

6) Be your child’s advocate

If you are calm and can focus on the situation at hand, you will not only reduce your child’s apprehension, but it will allow you to be a better advocate for them. So, if your child is afraid or is in pain, your job is to ask us to help. There are lots of things we can do. For instance, if time allows, we may be able to use numbing cream before inserting an IV. Or we can apply a gel to a laceration that will make the injection of local anesthetic easier.

7) As a parent, be patient, we’re doing our best

We will always see you, but life-threatening, traumatic or medical emergencies always come before minor illness and injuries. The ED can be a busy place. When the level of illness or injury is alike, patients are generally seen on a first-come-first-served basis. A child who is severely ill or unstable, however, supersedes all other patients and often will demand a fair amount of time. If it were your child who was critically ill or injured, wouldn’t you want our collective attention and all of our expertise and equipment focused on them?

8) Please don’t feed your child on the way to the ED

toddler boy eating crackers

It is generally not a good idea to feed your child just before, on the way to the ED, or in the treatment room before being seen by staff. Conditions that appear minor will sometimes require sedation or, rarely, the operating room. In both scenarios, a child who has eaten a meal or drinking anything other than water, can potentially delay care, putting the child at additional risk. You can ask on arrival if it is okay for your child to have something to eat or drink.

9) Work with the staff

Providers in pediatric settings have a bag of tools, tricks, and language we use to make the experience better for your child. Some pediatric EDs and children’s hospitals have staff members called Child Life Specialists. Their job is to help your child get through the experience as stress free as possible. Trust us. Your child is not our first patient. We know what we are doing.

For example, you probably will not hear words like “suture” or “stiches” because a child may associate those words with pain and result in fear. Instead, we might call stitches “string bandages” because it is less likely to provoke fear.

10) Dr. Google

This is one of the main reasons we started Kids Health Secrets/BlueEmerald Wellness. We were frustrated by lack of curated, tailored pediatric, easy to read, to the point, non-biased information for children’s health that was easy to access. And when we researched the accuracy of medical information for babies and children online, our assumptions were validated as the accuracy is poor.

Online research can turn up some interesting information. But those of us living in the age of technology should heed Alexander Pope, who in his 1709 poem, An Essay on Criticism, wrote “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Nowhere is that truer than in medicine where “a little learning” can provoke unnecessary fear and anxiety in patients (typically adolescents) and parents.

Most often parents seek Dr. Google’s advice prior to coming into the ED, but the diagnosis rendered by Dr. Google, however questionably textbook accurate it may be, lacks the patient’s medical history and context. Consequently, everything presented by Dr. Google most likely has absolutely nothing to do with your child’s actual diagnosis. And, oh yeah, please ask.

Moreover, the information on-line, is generally adult focused, which means that it does not translate to pediatric illnesses. For example, a child complaining of chest pain is rarely – and I mean rare in the extreme superlative – having a heart attack. But look up chest pain and you get a laundry list of adult complaints that would scare a seasoned health care professional who has the background to understand the information.

Unfortunately, despite good intentions we see an excess of stress and unneeded anxiety with use of the internet. This is very visible in both parents and when adolescents search in the eye of the healthcare provider.

11) Be honest with your child

Children coming into the ED are scared. Who would not be? So be honest with your child. Delaying the truth can cause feelings or fear and anxiety to escalate. They may ask if it is going to hurt? That is a tough one to answer. But my advice is to say that yes, it may hurt but it will be really quick. Offer an example of another time they had pain that went away quickly, like the time they scraped their knee.

Also, it is really not beneficial to your child to bribe them with food. This can lead to behaviors that you don’t want to start.

12) Stay with them as much as possible

Many pediatric and adult EDs have policies allowing parents to stay with their child. The American Academy of Pediatrics endorses parental presence during visits, procedures (even some invasive procedures), and resuscitations. During procedures and resuscitations, parents may be permitted to be present along with a staff support person who is typically focused on the parent. Not every parent is comfortable being present during procedures, but it is worth knowing that it may be an option.

Ask questions and don’t be afraid to seek clarifications about something that you don’t understand.

This is an emergency department. Accordingly, we are moving quickly and managing several cases of illness and injuries simultaneously. We are likely to use medical terms or our own shorthand language. If you do not understand or are confused, speak up. A physician or nurse will be happy to answer your questions.

13) Not all emergency departments are equal

All emergency departments have emergency physicians, but not all EDs have physicians who have trained and specialized in pediatric emergency medicine. Most emergency physicians do three years of training, mostly in adult emergency medicine mixed in with several months of pediatric training. In a pinch they can deal with very sick children, but most adult ED physicians would admit they would rather have a trained pediatric emergency physician take those cases.

Some emergency departments hire general pediatricians to deliver care. And while they are pediatricians, they are not trained pediatric emergency medicine physicians. Before an emergency arises, I would recommend researching which hospitals in your area have pediatric emergency care, as well as the closest children’s hospital. 

If you go to a hospital with a general ED that does not have inpatient or pediatric emergency care, expect to be transferred to a pediatric center. Not only is it common, but it is in the best interest of your child. Some of the biggest pediatric hospitals across the United States receive over 7,500 patients per year from community and other emergency departments.

Finally, if the unfortunate circumstance arises where you must go a pediatric ED, know that the medical professionals meeting you have only one goal, and that is to give you and your child the best care possible.

Sign up for Kids Health Secrets, an online kids’ preventive health and wellness platform to learn more. Kids Health Secrets has on-line classes, live classes, and resources that are perfect for any parent including those that are expecting, new parents, experienced and those that have children with special needs. Consults are available! Online classes start at $129 and live classes start at $49.99 so check them out today!

For more information and resources on your baby’s or child’s health, parent tips and tricks, pediatric emergencies, please visit our website or blog. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. You can also visit our website to download free PDF guides and hear our podcasts.

The information in this blog is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content is for general information purposes and is the opinion of staff at Blue Emerald Wellness. Please do not delay seeking medical advice or treatment because of something you read in this blog.

Authored by Dr. Christopher Haines & Azure Sullivan

Disclosure: We only recommend products we would use ourselves and all opinions expressed here are our own. This post may contain affiliate links. If you use these links to buy something we may earn a small commission. Read our full privacy policy here.

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