Parents sometimes get flustered about calling the on-call pediatrician because they don’t want to bother him/her. Trust me, doctors would rather be bothered than miss something. 

That being said, there’s a “proper” way to “bother” the on-call doctor. Here are some ground rules to help keep things simpatico:

1. Don’t Expect the Doctor to Have Your Child’s Chart in Front of Him/Her or to Know Everything About Your Child (Even With the Chart).

Even though the on-call doctor may have remote access to your child’s medical records, he/she may inadvertently miss important details while skimming through the chart. Or he/she may be out of the house when you call and be unable to open the chart. Avoid making assumptions about how much the doctor knows about your child, and instead, provide him/her with pertinent info. Such info includes:

  • The reason for your call. 
  • Your child’s symptoms. If your child has a fever, the doctor will want to know how his/her temperature was taken (a rectal temp is ideal for babies under 1 year) AND how high the fever has gone (the “TMax”). 
  • The age of your child and whether (or not) he/she was born prematurely.
  • Your child’s medical history. For example, does your little one have any known medical problems such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes? Has he/she ever needed surgery?
  • The medications that your child is taking (if any).
  • Whether your child has any known allergies.
  • Anything else that you think is important for the doctor to know.

2. If You Call Late at Night, Expect the Doctor to Be Half-Asleep Initially. 

While you might envision the doctor sitting by the phone reading a medical journal waiting for your call, this is usually not the case. Doctors are human, too, and the on-call doc may have been asleep when his/her pager went off and then stumbled around in the dark for a while trying not to wake his/her partner. Talk slowly and expect him/her to take a few seconds to get oriented.

3. Don’t Yell at the Doctor for Not Prescribing a Medication Over the Phone.

The vast majority of doctors do NOT like to prescribe medications over the phone for patients they’ve never seen before. If the on-call doc is your child’s regular pediatrician, things may be different. Otherwise, don’t expect the on-call doctor to call in a prescription, unless it’s for a refill.

4. Know That the Doctor May Send Your Child to the ER Out of An Abundance of Caution.

On-call doctors like to err on the side of caution. For example, if you say that your child is having “breathing problems” or is “lethargic,” those are red-flag words that usually guarantee a trip to the ER. 

Since doctors can’t see a child with breathing problems over the phone, it’s hard for them to tell if the patient is in legitimate respiratory distress or if he/she is just super congested. Doctors rely on parents to describe what’s going on and will ask pointed questions to try to get the answers they need. Still, it’s challenging to diagnose things over the phone. If it’s a rash, forget about it. Some docs will accept pictures of rashes, but others don’t even want to see the pictures because they don’t tell the whole story and many rashes look similar out of context.

5. Don’t Call the Doctor About Stuff That’s Not Urgent.

Every pediatrician has stories about the random, non-urgent questions parents have called them with in the middle of the night. We’ve all been woken up to be asked what the clinic hours are, how much sleep an infant should get, and if we could write a referral to a specialist. I’ve even had a parent call me to settle a bet between her and her mother-in-law. While it’s true that there are no dumb questions, there are definitely non-urgent questions. If you’re not sure if your question is urgent, no problem, just call. If you think it’s non-urgent, though, wait until the morning.

Bonus Tips:

  • If you haven’t heard back from the doctor within 30 minutes, call the answering service again. If it’s an emergency and you can’t wait, call 911.
  • Make sure that your ringer is on and your phone is next to you after you call. Otherwise it’s a setup for a late-night game of phone tag. 
  • Don’t call the on-call doctor back directly on his/her phone (unless you’re told otherwise). Instead, go through the answering service again. Most doctors block their number when calling patients, but sometimes they forget.

The Bottom Line

If you need to call the on-call doctor at night or on the weekend, use the tips above to help you navigate the “on-call waters.”