When taking your child to the doctor for a routine checkup or for a sign of an infection, do you ever worry they might get sick just from being in the waiting room? Your concerns are not unwarranted: In a 2014 study, researchers found that family members who came down with an "influenza-like illness" were likely to have had a well-child visit earlier that week or in the previous two weeks. The researchers calculated that doctor's office visits potentially translate into 778,974 excess cases of influenza-like illnesses per year in the US. And this year's flu virus is particularly virulent.
To combat the spread of germs, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) came up with new guidelines on infection prevention and control. Want to protect your child and yourself from the germ incubator that is a doctor's office waiting room? Make sure your pediatrician's office is following these best practices from the AAP.
1. Watch for hand-washing before every exam If your child’s nurse or doctor doesn’t wash their hands before beginning the exam, they might be unwittingly spreading germs from their last patient to your little one. Anyone in a doctor’s office who comes into contact with patients should wash their hands with soap and warm water or use an antibacterial hand sanitizer before and after every patient contact. See them forget? Speak up!
2. Ask if the office has an explicit policy against ill staff members reporting to work When you bring your child to the doctor, you shouldn’t have to worry about a staff member sharing a virus. “When anyone who works in a healthcare setting is sick, we encourage them to stay home,” says Elaine Cox, chief medical officer of Riley Children’s Health in Indianapolis, Indiana. Not only can ill healthcare workers make well patients sick but, “if patients come in with an illness, getting a secondary virus on top of the acute issue makes them more at-risk for complications.” Pediatricians’ offices should not only have a written policy barring ill employees from reporting to work but should also have an adequate sick-leave policy to ensure that workers have the paid time off they need to make a sound decision about whether they’re healthy enough to come to work.
3. Ask if all staff are fully vaccinated Each and every staff member who comes in contact with your child while they’re at the doctor should be fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated individuals can unwittingly spread disease before they even know they're sick and should not come into close contact with children, particularly those who are immunocompromised or who are too young to be fully vaccinated. The AAP recommends that all staff members be up-to-date on their vaccines and that they receive a flu shot annually.
4. Find out how well children and sick children are separated When you take your healthy child to the doctor, the AAP says they should not have to share space with kids who are unwell. Ill and potentially contagious children should either be shown immediately to an exam room or should be seated in a separate waiting area away from well children. Since there are not always two designated rooms, and it can be hard to know if a child next to you is sick, ask your doctor (or the staff) if they have procedures in place for handling sick children who come to the office.
5. Ask how often the waiting room toys are cleaned While many pediatricians now encourage their patients to bring their own toys and books from home to keep them occupied while they wait, offices that provide toys should clean them thoroughly at least every day. “There should be a process whereby they are cleaned at regular intervals with a substance that has high reactivity against bacteria, viruses and fungi,” says Cox. The AAP also encourages offices to avoid difficult-to-clean toys like stuffed animals or gadgets with many small pieces.
6. Watch the clock during wait time Waiting at the doctor’s office is never pleasant, and according to the AAP , it can also lead to more illness. When little patients spend a long time in a waiting room, they are more likely to come into contact with another child or surface that contains serious germs. Ideally, pediatricians should work to ensure that office wait times are short and waiting rooms are kept free of crowds.