Editor's note: This article was sponsored by Overlake Medical Center and Clinics.
With most schooling remaining remote this fall, “back to school” season looks a little different. Many familiar habits of the season — riding school buses, maneuvering crowded school hallways and eating in bustling cafeterias — are on hold. But annual wellness checkups, or back-to-school exams, are just as important as ever, says internal medicine physician Darshana Shanbhag, M.D., of Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue.
Why postponing preventive care hurts
Public health experts are concerned that parents are postponing preventive care for their children and themselves out of concerns about COVID-19. According to a May 2020 report released by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, doctor visits for women’s care and wellness screenings dropped 86 percent during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, why should parents prioritize back-to-school wellness checkups when school is taking place online? First, staying in touch with your health-care providers at regular intervals is just plain good for your family’s health. Research links delayed preventive care to negative outcomes, such as increased health-care costs and a lower quality of life.
For children with chronic illness, missing regular wellness visits can negatively impact health well into adulthood. A seven-year, population-based study of 36,944 children found that for children with chronic disease, missed wellness checkups and reduced continuity of care — or a disruption in regular health-care services over time — were each independently linked to an increased risk of being hospitalized as an adult.
If kids still want to play sports when practices resume, staying current on paperwork and vaccines required for sports participation will ease the transition back to sports. Plus, checking in with your child’s pediatrician about needed vaccines, boosters, prescription refills, screenings and referrals can serve as a welcome (and probably necessary) reminder to maintain a sense of normalcy during a time when things feel anything but normal.
Support for sleep, schedules and pressing questions
A wellness checkup also allows parents to ask a real, live doctor the questions they’ve been mulling over, says Shanbhag. “We’re getting a lot of questions like ‘Is it safe for my children to visit their grandparents?’ ‘Is it safe for us to go on a family vacation?’ ‘Is it safe for my child to have a playdate?’ Having a wellness checkup gives you the chance to talk about health risks in the current environment as they apply to your family’s unique situation.”
At this time of year, a fair share of those questions may center on sleep. The perennial struggle to help kids wake up for morning classes after a summer without an alarm clock may be particularly tough this year, since kids haven’t had to catch an early school bus since March. “This fall is not going to be normal,” says Scott Bonvallet, M.D., medical director of the Overlake Sleep Disorders Center.
But kids still need to get up for class, even if that class takes place on a screen instead of at school. “Kids thrive on structure, and it helps to keep their sleep routine stable,” says Bonvallet. “A few weeks before school starts, start waking them up earlier — no later than 9 a.m. — and establish a nighttime routine that includes putting electronics away an hour before bedtime.”
Prioritizing sleep during the back-to-school season can help make those early Zoom classes less stressful come September. It can also help your children stay healthier this fall and winter, Bonvallet notes: “Not getting enough sleep suppresses your immune function, and research shows that sleep deprivation makes vaccines less effective.”
If you take care of yourself, you can focus more on your kids, because you’re coming from a good place.
Putting on your own mask
Kids aren’t the only ones who should schedule an annual wellness checkup; parents are skipping their own self-care, which hurts their health long-term, says Shanbhag. “Parents are working and schooling their children and don’t feel like they can take time for their own medical care, and it’s taking a huge toll on their health.”
That means adults who were doing well before the COVID-19 pandemic are losing ground in terms of their health, says Shanbhag. “Stress affects so many areas of your life. We’re seeing people smoke more, sleep less, stop paying attention to what they eat, even running out of medication for weeks at a time without checking in with their doctor.” The result can be that health concerns, such as weight, blood pressure and blood sugar, can spin out of control.
When it comes to prioritizing your own health care, “It’s important to put on your own oxygen mask first,” she says. “If you take care of yourself, you can focus more on your kids, because you’re coming from a good place.”
Of course, Shanbhag acknowledges that it can be hard for parents to figure out a way to divide their time between parenting, work and remote schooling. “That’s why it’s great that insurance providers have pivoted to cover telehealth visits, and hospitals and clinics are offering virtual visits as an option for many patients.” Video visits are quick (often lasting 20 minutes or less), covered by most insurance plans and can take place from your desk, your bedroom, even your car — anywhere you have access to a smartphone.
Heading into a clinic for a face-to-face physical exam shouldn’t strike fear, either, Shanbhag notes. “We don’t see patients with respiratory symptoms in clinic, and we are taking all precautions to keep our patients safe. Right now, I would say it’s safer than going to the grocery store.”
At a time when parents are being stretched thin, your child’s pediatrician and your own health-care provider can be important sources of support, says Shanbhag. “People should know that we are still here for them and want to help them stay healthy.”