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It takes a (digital) village: How to find quick answers on family health

Alice Gomstyn By Alice Gomstyn

Mother on laptop with children

I don't remember exactly how he bumped his little forehead that night. Only that right after it happened, he cried and I panicked. Was it serious? How would I know? My toddler had quickly calmed down after the accident, but mama hadn't. I nervously scoured the Internet, trying to determine whether a late-night trip to the emergency room was in order, hoping I'd find information to reassure me. Instead, I grew increasingly anxious as I plowed through web page after web page, unsure of which one to trust.

As many parents can testify, coping with a sick or injured child at odd hours can be an excruciating experience, particularly when it's not immediately obvious that his or her condition merits a trip to the ER. And even during the day, when your pediatrician's office is open, getting there might prove challenging for a variety of reasons: You have another child to care for, the traffic is especially bad, the office doesn't have any convenient appointment times available, and so on.

Fortunately, parents today can turn to a variety of resources, many of them digital, to get immediate and trustworthy answers to pressing questions about their children's health without leaving home. Answers that often are far more personalized than what you’d get by typing symptoms into a search engine.

Call a health hotline

One of the simplest solutions requires just an old-fashioned telephone: Health hotlines offered by some insurers provide 24-hour access to advice from experienced professionals. Some Aetna members, for example, can call the Informed Health Line to speak with a specially trained nurse about one of 5,000 health topics.

Video chat with a doctor

Interested in a more visual experience? Services such as MDLive and Teladoc use video chat to connect doctors with patients. Using a desktop computer or smartphone, parents (and their children) can virtually meet with board-certified physicians who can diagnose and treat conditions ranging from sore throats to constipation. Doctors affiliated with these services can even prescribe medication you can pick up at your local pharmacy.

Upload photos to a dermatologist

If it's a skin condition that you're worried about, services such as First Derm and Iagnosis may give you the information you need to treat certain issues at home. The services allow patients — or the parents of patients — to upload photos of rashes, bug bites and the like. (If your child also has a fever or acts very sick, call your pediatrician right away or consider a visit to urgent care, just to be safe.) Within 24 hours a dermatologist will get in touch with a diagnosis and advice. The speedy service contrasts starkly with the long wait for an in-person appointment with a dermatologist — four to six weeks if your child is a new patient.

Send secure messages to your pediatrician

If you're determined to get the advice of a doctor your family sees regularly, there is a tech solution for that as well. Ask your pediatrician if he or she communicates by email or text message. If not, some may be comfortable using a tool such as PingMD, a secure messaging service developed specifically for use by doctors and their patients.

Turn to other parents for reassurance

After you've gotten advice from a medical pro, sometimes it helps to seek the wisdom of other parents who have dealt with similar issues…or to just vent. Whether you turn to a local mom group or an online parenting community, discovering that there are plenty of other families going through the exact same issues with their kids — and surviving to tell the tale — can calm your anxiety. It also helps to know a few quick de-stressing tricks

When my toddler bumped his head that night, I wasn't aware of the many resources I had at my disposal. The next time one of my kids has a minor accident outside our pediatrician's office hours, I'll know who to call (or teleconference) for advice. It sure beats driving myself crazy clicking and scrolling through dozens of websites. Less crazed internet searching, after all, means more time for comforting an achy child.

About the author

Alice Gomstyn is a veteran parenting blogger and business reporter. She is an admitted sugar addict but plans to cut back on the sweet stuff and load up on veggies like never before. Bring on the broccoli!