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When Should I Call the On-Call Pediatrician?

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When Should I Call the On-Call Pediatrician?

Apr 11, 2022

As a parent, your pediatrician can be your lifeline whenever you have a question about the health of your child. But what should you do when you have a pressing question or concern after-hours, and the clinic is closed? Cindy Gellner, MD, and pediatrician with University of Utah Health, shares the pressing circumstances when you should reach out to the on-call pediatrician and when it can wait until morning.

Episode Transcript

"Should I call the on-call pediatrician?" It's a question you've probably asked yourself when you have a question for your child's doctor and the clinic is closed. I'll help you figure out when it's appropriate to call and when a question can wait until the next office day.

As a pediatrician, we all take call, meaning that we rotate with our colleagues when we answer after-hours phone calls from concerned parents.

Usually, the questions parents have are very appropriate. Sometimes parents are just looking for reassurance that they're doing the right supportive care for their little one. Sometimes they're wanting reassurance that taking their child to urgent care or the emergency room is the right decision and that they're not overreacting. And sometimes they just want to know how much fever reducer to give.

One thing I don't think most parents realize is that the job of the on-call pediatrician is to help determine if their child needs to be seen urgently or not.

We cannot diagnose anything over the phone. Parents will often tell me that they know their child has an ear infection, or strep throat, or a urinary tract infection. I can't tell if your child has any of those over the phone, so they need to be seen.

We absolutely cannot call in medications like controlled substances. We cannot call in medications in general, because if your child needs an urgent medication, they should be seen.

If they need a refill of a long-time medication, that's better to be addressed by your child's pediatrician specifically during office hours. Questions that are not urgent should wait until the clinic is open.

I have one colleague who answers her calls, "Hello, this is the on-call doctor. What is your emergency?" One reason for this is we've gotten questions like, "I'm in the baby food aisle at the store. What food should I get my 6-month-old?" or, "My toddler won't take a nap. What can I do to force them to take one?" or, "How old does my daughter need to be to get her ears pierced?" These are all questions I've gotten.

One thing I've noticed in my years of taking call are that parents often think I'm sitting in the clinic just waiting for their calls. More than once, I've been asked if they can just come in and see me or if I can meet them at the emergency room.

When you call the on-call pediatrician, we are at home with our families. We are not in the office. I've answered phone calls from soccer games, while doing landscaping, when I'm doing hospital rounds in the newborn nursery, when out to eat, and of course, from my bed in the middle of the night.

As pediatricians, we want to be there for you when you have concerns. Kids don't come with instruction manuals, and often things happen when the office is closed. If you have an urgent concern, you are always welcome to call and we will give you the best advice we can. If your concern is not urgent, it will be better handled by your pediatrician during office hours.

Your pediatrician knows your child and your family. They can address non-urgent concerns better than one of us who has never met your child before.