For kids, summertime means sunny days, swimming, playing outside with friends—and a doctor’s appointment?
It might not be as fun as a trip to the beach, but a well visit with your child’s doctor is a chance to catch up on vaccinations, check development milestones and talk about overall health. It’s also a great time to get a physical exam that schools require for sports participation and other extracurricular activities.
There’s more to a well visit than filling out school forms, says UNC Health pediatrician Adam Ottley, MD. Even if your child is not required to have a back-to-school physical, a well visit is valuable.
“A typical well visit would include a review of growth, nutrition, exercise and other healthy habits,” he says. “We also talk about safety, especially with teens who are starting to drive. And we talk about mental health, with screenings for depression, anxiety and other issues.”
Here are four reasons to schedule a well visit for your child this summer.
1. Well visits cover important ground that sick visits don’t.
The kinds of things that doctors check when your child is sick are different from what’s discussed at well visits, Dr. Ottley says.
“When someone is sick, they may not be in the mood for guidance about their overall health,” he says. “At a well visit, we check blood pressure, vision, hearing and other things that might get different results when you’re sick.”
Your child’s doctor will let you know which vaccinations your child is due to receive, according to the vaccine schedule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Teens and preteens may be due for a Tdap vaccine (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, or whooping cough), HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine, meningitis (meningococcal) vaccine, or seasonal shots for flu and COVID-19.
2. The doctor can check in on your child’s mental health.
Teens and children are facing a crisis in mental health, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the CDC and other experts. A well visit is an ideal time to check in with young people and let them know that help is available if they need it.
“We ask questions to screen for depression and anxiety,” Dr. Ottley says. “If there’s concern, we ask about their support system at home. We help connect them to therapists in the community. In some cases, medications can be helpful.”
3. Well visits can be especially helpful for teens gaining independence.
Having a chance to talk with a doctor they know and trust can be particularly valuable for teens and preteens, Dr. Ottley says. They can ask their doctor questions they may be embarrassed to ask their parents.
“In my practice—and I’m not unique in this—I’ll ask the parent to step out of the exam room for a few minutes at the end of the visit,” he says. “That helps the teenager get used to communicating with a physician on their own and not be afraid to get healthcare when they go off to college or work. It also gives us a chance to discuss confidential matters and make sure they’re getting the healthcare they need.”
The doctor may review age-appropriate information related to mental health, sex, smoking, drug and alcohol use, safety in relationships and sexually transmitted diseases.
“I’m happy to discuss with parents the questions I’m going to ask,” Dr. Ottley says. “But I also tell the patient and parent that I’m not going to communicate the answers. They are confidential unless there’s a potential threat of harm to the child or someone else.”
For younger teens, doctors can provide reassurance that changes during puberty are normal.
4. Back-to-school physicals can yield important health information.
If your child participates in an activity that requires a back-to-school physical, fill out what you can on the form before the well visit.
“It’s immensely helpful for the doctor to know about their patient’s family history before doing a physical,” Dr. Ottley says.
A family history can help the patient, doctor and parents identify any conditions to look out for, he says.
“Some of the questions are very specific and can become very informative for the family,” he says. “You may not initially know the answer, but it gives the family a chance to talk to other family members about their health history.”
If there is a concern, your doctor may refer your child to a specialist, such as a cardiologist. Even then, “usually it doesn’t prevent them from participating in sports,” Dr. Ottley says. “Sometimes testing can rule out problems or provide other guidance about what to look for.”
If it’s time for a well visit for your child or teen, call your child’s doctor or find one near you.