It’s time for a visit to the pediatrician or dentist, but is it safe to go? Health professionals share the changes they’ve made for safety.

As a mom of six, my planner is typically peppered with a wide variety of regular healthcare appointments for my children: annual wellness checks, biannual teeth cleaning, and a few specialist appointments such as the orthodontist and the eye doctor.

But during the time of stay-at-home orders, many of these appointments were canceled, the offices closed indefinitely. Which is why I was surprised when our pediatrician called to schedule annual well checks for two of my children.

Yes, many stay-at-home orders are lifting, but I still had questions. Was it safe? Was it worth it to bring them out, especially to a place where sick people may have been recently?

The nurse assured me that while COVID-19 had forced the office to adjust safety protocols, yes, it was better to keep up with vaccinations than to postpone. Although I was still worried, I kept the appointments, wearing my mask the entire time as requested.

When we arrived for our appointment, I called the office from the car as instructed so that the staff could make sure the halls were clear and usher us straight back to an exam room. Before the pandemic, my girls would have busied themselves climbing on the play structure while I filled out all the necessary forms.

According to Chad Hayes, MD, FAAP, a practicing pediatrician in North Carolina, this is a helpful change that he has also implemented in his practice.

“We’ve stopped using reusable forms, pens, and clipboards so that patients aren’t touching shared surfaces,” he says. “Only one parent can come up at a time, and all patients and parents are masked who come in.”

Hayes’ practice only sees well-child visits in the morning now, and if they suspect anything contagious, he does a lot of screening before allowing them into the office.

Hayes says that while some appointments may be safe to postpone, others are important to keep, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Vaccines and developmental concerns

“The ones I would prioritize are for babies under 2 because they frequently involve vaccines and are developmentally important. Four, 11, and 16 years as well, because of vaccines.”

According to Hayes, these appointments are also vital because a lot of developmental concerns are identified during them. “One of my major concerns right now are adolescents. Their structure has been stripped away, and they are already at risk for anxiety and depression.”

Specialists

For specialist appointments, parents should be in contact with their child’s doctor in order to determine if it’s better to wait or be seen as scheduled. And if the appointment must be kept, Dr. Jeffrey G. Neal of Abingdon Ear, Nose, Throat, & Allergy in Abingdon, Virginia, says parents should be prepared with what the pandemic-related procedures will be from the moment you arrive.

“Most allergy offices are practicing social distancing by using the patient’s car and therefore parking lots as waiting rooms,” Neal says. “Check-in is now completed at carside, and children are given the option of getting their shots outside by the nurses or in their car.”

Therapists

Parents whose children regularly see a therapist may be concerned about keeping up with appointments. Thankfully, technology makes it possible to continue therapy without violating the current need for social and physical distancing. “At this time, there is no real reason to bring a child to a therapist office,” says Gonzalo Laje, MD, MHSc, FAPA.

Laje suggests that appointments be conducted via teletherapy platforms such as Zoom or Google Meet, which is how he has been maintaining his patients’ treatments. He says, “We are successfully conducting art-therapy and other therapy modalities that would seemingly be difficult to do over video.” You can book an appointment with a pediatrician in your area using our Healthline FindCare tool.

Dentists

Pediatric dental visits are currently on hold for most parts of the country, however, parents should contact their child’s dentist in the case of any dental emergencies.

Kevin Donly, DDS, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, says that currently, an emergency dental visit would be something very serious such as a decayed tooth infection, pain, or severe trauma. “I would encourage parents to contact their pediatric dentist to discuss the problem, and it can be decided if a visit is necessary.”

Looking ahead to dental offices beginning to reopen, Donly suggests that dental offices will be different than what children are used to. He says, “Patient rooms will follow social distancing recommendations and dental offices will conduct ongoing deep office sanitation whenever possible.”

Additionally, Donly says that many pediatric dentists will be re-evaluating office waiting rooms to minimize potential risk.

For any appointment that children will need to attend, preparation is key. During this time, doctor’s appointments will look and feel very different than what children are used to. Katie Lear, LCMHC, a licensed therapist specializing in pediatrics, has some suggestions to help children get ready for appointments and minimize their anxiety.

“For kids with anxiety about doctor visits, I often recommend doing some role playing at home with toys to help children prepare for the experience, and that’s particularly true right now,” Lear says. “Make sure your child understands what will be the same and different about this appointment, for example, you’ll notice that everyone in the office is wearing masks, but Dr. Johnson will still be there, and you’ll still get to pick out a sticker when you leave. Sometimes, repeating the scenario a few times through play gives children more of a sense of mastery and control over the situation, which alleviates anxiety.”

Lear also suggests parents prepare themselves for appointments, since kids are very sensitive to their parents’ feelings.

“Take the time to help yourself feel calm and collected prior to the appointment,” she says. “Your child will likely pick up on your stress if you’re anxious about going to the doctor. If you can present yourself as calm, cool, and collected, your child will get the message that this is nothing to be afraid of, and will be more likely to respond in the same way.”

Maintaining your child’s health during this uncertain time is essential. If you have any questions or concerns, contact their doctor who can advise you on when to make an appointment, when to wait, and how to best keep your child safe and healthy.


Jenn Morson is a freelance writer living and working outside of Washington, D.C. Her words have been featured in The Washington Post, USA Today, Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, and many other publications.