Have a sick child? Here’s when to call the doctor

Calling a doctor or doctor’s office with a medical question is something people take for granted, at least here in the U.S.; a privilege that some treat as a right. This may be driven by the medical insurance industry. In order to be on an insurance company’s provider panel, doctors must be available or have a substitute available 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

Prior to telephones, doctors weren't so accessible to patients.
Prior to telephones, doctors weren’t easily accessible to patients.

But when is it medically appropriate to call a doctor’s office? Certainly to schedule a routine appointment. What if you just want to ask a question?

You probably should not. If a problem is serious enough that you  need a physician opinion, then both you and your doctor deserve a face to face encounter. It isn’t fair to you or your doctor, or good medical practice, to expect the doctor to make a medical decision based solely on the information gathered in a phone call or email.

With smart phones and computers, physicians are accessible to their patients almost anywhere.

For strictly procedural questions, a phone call or email may suffice; these can be answered by a nurse or a non-clinical staff per physician instruction. These questions might include

  • Clarification on medication instructions
  • Reporting normal test results
  • Scheduling follow up office visits or diagnostic procedures
  • Billing, insurance and payment issues
You might call your doctor for test results- or access them on line in a patient portal.
You might call your doctor for test results- or access the reports on -line in a patient portal.

If you call your doctor with a medical question, expect a request to schedule an appointment. MD Mama blogger, Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician and medical communications editor at Boston Children’s Hospital spoke to the Boston Globe about symptoms in children that should prompt a call to the doctor, or more specifically a visit to the doctor.


Although the article is directed to parents, the advice applies to adult illness as well. Symptoms for which evaluation should not be delayed if severe, persistent or worsening include

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fainting, passing out
  • Hives, swelling, rash (due to an allergic reaction) 
  • Lethargy or unexplained sleepiness
  • Severe pain
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Burns
  • Symptoms following a head injury
  • Bleeding, uncontrolled 
  • Fever

The Boston Globe article did not address the difference between urgent and emergent symptoms but I will address that in a follow up post. Check back for that discussion.


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