How Well Visits Are Billed and What Happens if a Problem is Found?

Written by David Sprayberry MD

In a previous post, I tackled the subject of what constitutes a well visit. Today I will try to explain the way well visits are billed and what happens if a problem is found and/or addressed at the same visit.

Medical billing is quite complex and is based on a process called coding. I will see if I can explain it in a way that makes sense. Let me know if I was successful.

Think of your medical bill for an office visit as being similar to the bill you receive at a restaurant. Each service, procedure, lab, and screen is billed separately just like each menu item is billed separately at a restaurant.

When you go to your doctor for a visit, he or she is required to follow certain rules, called CPT and ICD-9 rules, for describing what happened during the visit (unless he does not accept any insurance and is paid directly by the patient for the visit).

Each thing that is done during the visit has a code and each diagnosis has a code.

The physician must report these codes to the insurance company in order to get paid for the work that was done. There are codes for well visits, codes for sick or problem visits, codes for each test, codes for each vaccine, and codes for each procedure.

If these codes are not reported correctly, your doctor will not be paid for the visit.

Many times they are reported correctly and your doctor still does not get paid correctly by the insurance company (which is generally due to a “mistake” by the insurance company).

Most medical offices have one or more employees whose entire job is to report these codes and to make sure the insurance company or patient actually pays correctly for them.

At a well visit, the typical codes that are reported to the insurance company are the well visit code, codes for each vaccine, codes for the administration of each vaccine, and codes for each test or procedure (like hearing, vision, hemoglobin, lead testing, developmental screening).

These codes are all linked to the diagnosis “well child”. Depending on the insurance plan, some or all of these codes are “covered services” and are paid by the insurance company.

Sometimes the insurance company requires the patient/parent to pay for all or part of a visit (either in the form of a co-pay, deductible, or because the insurance company doesn’t cover a particular service).

This depends completely on the contract between the patient/parent and the insurance company. The physician’s office is required to collect from the patient/parent whatever the insurance company didn’t pay.

What often causes confusion is when there is an illness or other problem that is addressed or treated at the same visit.

For example, if I were to find an ear infection and treat it, I would be required to submit a code that told the insurance company I had taken care of a problem and done more than just the well visit. This is where the confusion for parents may start and here’s why:

Many, if not most, insurance plans require the patient to pay for a portion of any services that are not part of the well visit. Depending on the plan, the patient may need to pay a co-pay or may pay the entire amount of the extra service if they have not met their deductible.

Whether they need to pay this is determined by their insurance company, not their physician. The insurance companies have intentionally designed this system to create tension between the patient and physician, when, in reality, the insurance company has caused the need for the parent to pay the extra amount.

The physician merely did her job and described the visit accurately to the insurance company.

To summarize, the physician reports the codes that describe what occurred at the visit to the insurance company. The insurance company reviews the codes and determines if the patient owes any additional fee to the physician.

Whether the patient owes anything depends entirely on the patient’s contract with the insurance company, not by the physician.

I hope this helps clarify the issue. Please feel free to share your comments or questions.

Dr. Sprayberry is a practicing pediatrician and believes there is more to medicine than shuffling patients in and out the door. To read more about Dr. Sprayberry’s medical trips to Kenya, visit his blog, Pediatrics Gone to the Dawgs.

Photo Credit – Dr. Nan

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Expecting a Child? Need to Find a Pediatrician? What Questions Should You Ask?

Written by Natasha Burgert MD

“Who is going to be the doctor for your new baby?”

Your OB wants to know. Your friends have asked. Your mother is wondering.

Finding a pediatrician is on the “to-do” list of all expectant mothers and fathers. New families often begin the search for a potential baby doctor by asking for recommendations from their OB doctor, family, and friends.

Some families begin by looking at the American Academy of Pediatrics website.Regardless of how you find a pediatrician, truly determining if a doctor is going to be a good match for your family is often done by interviewing.

I have seen plenty of glowing mothers-to-be sitting in my office with the seemingly standard “interview sheet” from babycenter.com or WhatToExpect.com.

Parents come to my office with a “recommended question list” because they don’t really know what to ask. This is certainly understandable since, for most families, interviewing a doctor is new territory.

But although these lists of questions are a good start, I don’t think they get to the heart of the matter.

What most parents really want to know is if a pediatrician is likable. Is this person going to be someone I can ask questions? Do we have something in common? Are we going to get along?

Compatibility is what most parents are searching for.

Here are 5 questions I would ask a potential baby doctor during an interview.

1. “Tell me about your office.”

Office hours and locations, contact numbers, hospital affiliations, and basic biographical information is fairly standard on every medical practice website. Use the web to get the basics, but let the doctor tell you where he thinks his office really shines.

This open-ended approach gives the doctor an opportunity to say what he thinks is the most important, interesting, or significant about the place where he works.

If the doctor does not cover any specific question you have about the function of the office, then ask.

2. “Why did you choose to become a pediatrician?”

The million dollar question. This is an opportunity for you to learn about the person behind the white coat. Of all the medical specialties, why did she choose to take care of kids?

3. “What are your thoughts on antibiotics and vaccinations?”

For most doctors in pediatric healthcare, antibiotics and vaccinations are common medical interventions.

How a doctor chooses to use antibiotics, and for what illnesses, does vary. With the increasing concern of antibiotic resistance and super-infections, having a physician who can clearly define when antibiotic use is appropriate for your child is important.

Vaccinations are a fundamental building block for child health. A physician’s beliefs and attitudes towards vaccinations will effect the recommendations they may or may not provide.

Also, some physicians will not see patients if the recommended vaccination schedule is not followed. Allowing a doctor to openly express his opinion on immunizations can begin productive dialog about this very important topic.

4. “What do you love about your job?”

Does this doctor have a passion for the underserved? Does he love to see kids with chronic illnesses, like asthma or ADHD? Does she love to teach?

Asking a doctor to share the best part of his job may reveal a common interest. Or, allow you to determine if your family’s needs will be best supported.

5. “What do you like to do outside of work?”

Pediatricians often look alike on paper. We all go to medical school, complete a pediatric residency, and get certified by the American Board of Pediatrics.

Asking the doctor what she enjoys doing outside of work may be enough to make the person on paper become a new partner in the care of your family.

Good luck in your search!

Dr. Burgert is a pediatrician. She works at Pediatrics Associates in Kansas City, MO .  She is a distance runner and enjoys road races around the city. She also has a passion for travel that will certainly lead to many memorable family vacations with her husband and two children. And, of course, she bleeds Husker red. Dr. Burgert regularly blogs at kckidsdoc.com

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Five Reasons Online Review Sites for Doctors Stink

Written by Suzanne Berman MD

The Internet provides plenty of opportunities for consumers to rate the quality of professional services they receive. A quick search can help you find recommended plumbers in your area, or suggest that you steer away from a certain roofing contractor.

Similarly, there are lots of online physician rating websites that offer the same service to consumers: check and see which doctors in your area are recommended by other patients.

I’ve watched the mushrooming of these “rate-the-doctor” websites with interest. While they provide an opportunity for patients to provide feedback to doctors and other patients, some elements could use improvement.

1 – They’re anonymous

Who is writing the reviews? While most come from true patients, there’s nothing to limit one single patient from sending 8 reviews about the same experience. For that matter, who’s to say good reviews aren’t from the doctor, trying to boost her image?

Physicians who are also small business owners (like me) from time to time terminate poor-performing employees. After a firing, does a spike in negative reviews of our practice reflect coincidence, or an ex-employee trying to retaliate anonymously– especially if the review contains “insider information” that our average patient wouldn’t be aware of?

2 – It’s not clear the patient is really a patient

When I read travel reviews online, I’m struck by how many reviews come from people who admit in their review that they didn’t actually stay at the hotel or eat at the restaurant. The review will read something like “I wanted to stay at this hotel because I’ve read so much about it, but when I clicked on the Reservations tab, I was shocked at the room rates. I couldn’t believe this hotel would charge so much for so little.

“They will never get my business!”

While the consumer is giving feedback to the hotel (“I think the market won’t sustain your prices”), this one-star comment hardly addresses what most travelers want feedback on (cleanliness of the rooms, friendliness of the staff, quality of the restaurant), since anyone can look up the prices for rooms.

Similarly, anonymous patient reviews don’t distinguish between a patient who came once, a long-term patient, and a prospective patient who has never been seen.

The latter’s comments are usually about a perceived access barrier to care, like: “I was new to town and needed a pediatrician. My son had terrible ear pain so I called to see if anyone could phone him in some antibiotics before the weekend. They were so rude and refused to help me out. I will never go there.”

Since I never had an opportunity to meet the family myself, never established a physician/patient relationship, and certainly never had an opportunity to explain, I don’t really consider this a review from a patient – but it’s in there with the rest of them.

3 – There’s no way to respond.

Some consumer rating websites, like Trip Advisor, allow the hotel or restaurant to respond or comment to a particular review. Many doctor rating websites don’t have a similar feature.

I don’t have an opportunity to apologize, or set the record straight, or offer to make my patient’s bad experience right. The patient can vent, surely, but I’d rather to try to reconcile the relationship.

4 – Patient privacy is protected.

Even if I can figure out who wrote a particular negative review, I can’t respond specifically in public with patient-specific information. Let’s say a mother posts a comment that I misdiagnosed her child’s ear infection: “even though Dr. Berman said Caleb’s ears looked great — later, when I took him to the ER, they said his ear was terrible.”

I review the child’s record: indeed, I examined the child in my office, who had clear ears. The child indeed went to the ER for worsening ear pain — five days later.

To me, this doesn’t speak to misdiagnosis as much as it does a common medical problem of kids: good ears sometimes go bad. I’d like to post something to clarify this online – to take the opportunity to educate families that ear exams can change over a period of days – but I can’t.

Simply, if I post any public health information about Caleb on the Internet, I’ve violated patient privacy laws (HIPAA). I can try to contact Caleb’s mother privately to make this same point, but she may or may not see fit to alter her online statement.

5 – Even the “neutral” information can be wrong.

“Rate-the-doctor” websites usually contain some basic demographic information, like the physician’s address, board certification status, age, gender, and so on. This information is often out-of-date, if not completely erroneous.

I’m amused to sometimes find that, according to some websites, I’m not board certified or that I practice at an address I haven’t worked at in seven years. Again, there’s often no mechanism for me, as the actual physician, to contact the site administrator to ask that my information be corrected.

So patients who come to these websites to get information about physicians may read bad information even before they look at the reviews.

Once it’s on the Internet, it’s there forever.

Our office periodically reviews our online reviews. A while ago we found one from a dissatisfied patient, rating us 2 stars out of 5, and concluding, “If there’s another place to take your kids, you should probably take them there, and not to this office.” The review was dated about 9 months prior to our discovering it.

The mother had left enough personally-identifiable information in the review for us to figure out who had posted it. Interestingly, in the 9 months since she felt dissatisfied with us, she was continuing to bring her son to us, and in fact had had a newborn daughter, whom she was bringing to our office for care.

We were puzzled that, if she were that displeased with our office, she hadn’t followed her own advice and transferred care to another practice. The next time she was in the office, we gently asked her about her review.

At first she looked blank; she’d completely forgotten she’d posted it! Finally she said, “Oh – that. Yes, I was dissatisfied with your office a couple of times, but since then I’ve kept coming, and now I’m much happier to be a patient here.”

We’re happy that she’s now more comfortable with us. Unfortunately, her review is still on the Internet, forever, and possibly no longer able to be amended.

Doctors are starting to fight back, and it’s not pretty.

While patients have the right to post opinions on the Internet, doctors who feel an opinion crosses the line have sued for defamation, slander and lost income. Doctors who respond in this way have drawn a lot of media attention – and many of them have a sudden increase in negative reviews posted.

This suggests that many of the newer respondents perhaps aren’t patients at all, but rather many readers are angry that a doctor would try to sue a patient for expressing her opinion. As far as a doctor trying to enhance her online reputation, it doesn’t seem to be a very effective method.

So what’s better?

Our office collects anonymous periodic surveys of our patients to learn how we’re doing and how we can improve. We ask patients to rate us on timeliness, friendliness, professionalism, and so on while they’re in the office as part of a visit.

This assures us that the reviews are being completed by actual patients, and that they’re being completed at the time of the visit, while impressions are still fresh.

Because we design the survey, we can make it specific as needed to help us identify problem areas: for example, rather than asking if “staff” are rude or friendly, we can ask for separate feedback on receptionists, nurses, doctors, billing staff, etc.

We’ve started sharing the results of our surveys with our patients, and we’re going to post future results on our practice website as well.

While our patients are free to comment about their experiences on rate-the-doctor websites, we believe posting results of our surveys will provide an equivalent service, and will be a more complete representation of our patients’ impressions of our practice.

Suzanne Berman is a practicing general pediatrician in rural Tennessee.

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6 tips to help make the best of the time your teen spends with your doctor

Written by Natasha Burgert MD

Summer is the time most teenagers come to the pediatrician’s office for their annual health exams. Here are 6 tips to help make the best of the time you spend with your doctor.

1. Make an appointment. Now.

Teens are a dynamic animal. And fortunately, most are very healthy. But healthy kids need doctors, too. Subtle changes in physical exam, measurements, and lifestyle can be concerning issues to a trained pediatrician’s eye. And if teens are not routinely seen by a provider, opportunities for easy correction and treatment can be lost.

A pediatrician is expertly trained to provide a complete physical exam for your teen child. Our job is to be sure that your child’s global health is optimal, physically and mentally. We specialize in the growth and development of teens, as well as discuss the risks and challenges of their age.

Most importantly, seeing healthy teens and their families is when pediatricians can make the biggest relationship impacts. Well child visits are instrumental in developing a working partnership with someone in the health care field that can be your family’s partner and advocate should challenges or illness arise.

And, we love to see you. Please make an appointment for your teen to be seen.

2. Define your concerns.

Since teens are generally healthy creatures, parents and kids often have absolutely NO concerns about their child’s health. GREAT! These visits can be used to review healthy habits, safe living practices, and look at vacation photos. I love those check-ups.

Your teen’s appointment is, however, the only time we will likely see each other this year, so please take a minute to think about any issues you would like to discuss. In fact, make a list. Then, remember to bring the list with you to the appointment.

3. If you have significant issues to discuss, consider sending an email or letter giving some details prior to your appointment.

Issues such as depression, weight gain or loss, menstrual concerns, ADHD, and headaches much more effectively addressed if your provider has had some extra time and some extra history prior to the appointment.

If you know that you have a significant concern to discuss, please let the person who is making your teen’s appointment know. This is to allow for extra time, if needed. In addition, ask the scheduler if you would be able to send a note to the physician prior to the appointment. This will optimize our time together.

4. Have the parent’s section of camp forms, health forms, and athletic participation forms completed.

Please.

5. Prepare to spend some time apart.

After talking with a patient with his or her family, pediatricians often speak with teens privately. It allows an opportunity for us to get to know each patient on a more personal level, without parental interruption. In addition, this allows your teen to “practice” talking with a physician – a very important life skill.

The goal of this time is to repeat and reinforce the healthy habits you are already discussing with your teen. The more we know about your family, the better this is accomplished. In addition, private conversations begin establishing a foundation of trust with each patient. As your teen’s trust with a physician grows, it is easier for them to have honest and open dialog about potential health risks.

In pediatrics, the conversations with teens are confidential and protected. Providers are obligated to share information with parents in defined situations, such as patients who are at risk of harming themselves or others.

6. Never promise your teen that there will be “no shots.”

The recommendations from the vaccine advisory boards are always changing. Vaccines are a very important way of protecting your teen from significant, deadly diseases. Teens are getting protected from chicken pox, meningitis, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis, and human papilloma virus with some of today vaccines.

Have a great summer, and a great checkup with your pediatrician!

Dr. Burgert is a pediatrician. She works at Pediatrics Associates in Kansas City, MO .  She is a distance runner and enjoys road races around the city. She also has a passion for travel that will certainly lead to many memorable family vacations with her husband and two children. And, of course, she bleeds Husker red. Dr. Burgert regularly blogs at kckidsdoc.com

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Dr. Google, Friend or Foe?

Written by Natasha Burgert MD

Two articles recently caught my eye while I was spending some time on Twitter. First, an op-ed piece was published on Time.com discussing how patients and doctors perceive the use of the online health information. The article was closely followed by the results of a recent PEW research study which stated that 80% of Americans used the internet to “prepare for or recover from” their doctor visit.

The results of the PEW study were less than surprising to me. Everyday I have a concerned mom or anxious dad refer to something they have read online.

Everyday.

And, everyday I get to learn about new articles and websites that are claiming to have reputable health information. I learn from my families who bring in articles and links, and often share the good information with other families who may be struggling with the same concerns.

As a medical doctor who regularly navigates the web, however, I did not expect nor appreciate the author’s tone in the Time.com piece. I was made to feel that all doctors were like lazy cattle, being poked with an electric switch towards a glowing computer screen.

I find that troubling as a practicing pediatrician. Although doctors have traditionally been thought of as “late-adopters,” not all of us fit that archaic mold. There are many, many doctors who are embracing e-communication of all types within their daily medical practice. And all successful doctors practice “shared clinical decision-making” with their families, regardless if the internet is a piece of the information puzzle.

How can you discuss online health information with your physician, without being labeled a “cyberchondriac?”

Here are some things to consider before you approach your provider with some internet research of your own.

Critique what you find

Commercial advertisers and agenda-based groups can be very deceiving online. Does the information have sources to original, peer-reviewed medical articles?

Who is writing the article, and what are their credentials? Who is paying for the study to be completed? Are there a lot of banner ads, or references to a certain brand of product? Does the writer of the article have financial interest in the items they recommend? Dr. Meisel did state this well, saying,

Many patients are going to discover the best online health information way before their doctors do. They, too, have a responsibility: patients will need to signal to their doctor how they conducted their search in a way that was smart, directed and grounded in evidence. Only then will the Google stack be recognized and used in a helpful, not counterproductive, fashion.

My favorite public sites for health information include:

  • Is your child sick? This feature is on our practice’s website to give families some information about common childhood symptoms. The site also give some guidance about what symptoms are concerning enough to contact the on-call physician.
  • www.uptodate.com This is a very well-designed site providing general information on health conditions and their treatments.
  • www.healthychildren.org A website full of childhood health information developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • www.cdc.gov General information on illness, vaccines, and travel concerns.
  • www.vaccine.chop.edu Complete, concise vaccine information.

If your provider allows, send links and articles to your doctor before the visit

Bring a list of keywords that you searched. This allows your doctor to look over the information more critically, and hopefully more thoughtfully. If your doctor does not allow you to provide information prior to your appointment, don’t expect organized discussion about your findings in a brief appointment slot. Thinking about online information critically is a time-consuming process. Give your provider ample time to look over the information after your appointment.

Be prepared for a “no”

It may be possible, that despite your best efforts, keywords or articles you have found may have been misleading. If your physician disagrees with some online information you have found, it is very appropriate to ask, “Why?” Your provider should explain why the information may not be relevant or appropriate for your specific situation, hopefully providing alternate online references to help continue your search.

We are partners

Bring information to your provider with an attitude of partnership and shared decision-making. No one likes a confrontation. Navigating health online information is a learning process for all of us. If we don’t listen to each other, we don’t learn.

If patients and doctors can have open dialog about information found online – good and bad – we can take care of patients better. And that is more than Dr. Google could ever do alone.

Dr. Burgert is a pediatrician. She works at Pediatrics Associates in Kansas City, MO .  She is a distance runner and enjoys road races around the city. She also has a passion for travel that will certainly lead to many memorable family vacations with her husband and two children. And, of course, she bleeds Husker red. Dr. Burgert regularly blogs at kckidsdoc.com

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Paying for your restaurant bill and your doctor’s bill is not that different

Written by Brandon Betancourt

I got a call from a mom recently. She wanted to know why she was being charged for both a preventive wellness visit and an office visit on the same date of service.

For those that don’t know, most visits to a pediatrician’s office are either considered an office visit, which generally include visits where the patient is sick, and wellness visits – which are those visits where the doc does a more comprehensive head to toe assessment of the child otherwise know as a physical.

This particular patient came in for a wellness visit, but the doctor also documented and addressed a heart condition that the patient has. The heart condition assessment triggered an office visit in addition to a yearly physical. In other words, our office submitted a claim to the patient’s insurance stating that both an office visit and a physical occurred during the encounter.

Mom wanted to know why the two charges since she was under the impression that checking a patient’s heart should be part of the physical.

I understood where the mom was coming from. Medical billing is very complicated and in many instances doesn’t make any sense. Not because the doctor or her office makes it complicated, but because the insurance companies designed it that way.

Here is how I explained it to her.

When you go to a restaurant, and order a dish, generally the meal will come with side foods. So, let’s say one is ordering a pasta primavera. The expectation is that in addition to the pasta, the dish is going to come with vegetables, which are included in the price of the dish.

Let’s say one decides to add chicken to the pasta primavera and the server says, “sure, but that will be extra.”  Meaning, she will have to charge extra for the added chicken. When asked what you’ll like to drink, 9 out of 10 times, beverages will also be extra. And so will appetizers.

Healthcare is like an a la carte restaurant where some things are included in the price of the visit, but others are not.

But here is where it get a little complicated. Unlike the the restaurant, patients don’t pay for their bills directly to the doctor; insurance companies pay the doctor. And insurance companies, in an effort to provide more shareholder value, prefer to pay for the least amount of claims possible because the less they have to pay, the more money they make.

Thus, they require physicians to document everything that happened during the visit so they can determine how much they have to pay based on the policy purchased by the patient. In other words, they won’t take the doctor’s word for it. They want to see and review everything that was discussed during the visit  with the patient so they can decide what should and should not get paid.

During this particular patient visit, I explained to the parent, in addition to the wellness visit, the doctor also assessed the child’s medical condition, which required the doctor to prescribe medication, order x-rays and a consult with a specialist.

Just like the appetizers and the added chicken is billed as “extra” at a restaurant, the assessment on the child’s condition was extra work for the doctor that is not included with the wellness visit payment.

And in her documentation, the doctor described to the the insurance company that the patient had required an “appetizer” and “chicken,” thus they should pay her more.

Essentially, the doctor was simply documenting the visit with everything she did in order to demonstrate to the insurance company what was done. And the heart condition assessment documented by the doctor triggered an office visit.

The parent appreciated the analogy and said that it was perfectly reasonable explanation. I was happy. I was able to communicate without insurance jargon and was understood. In my world, this is considered a good day.

Brandon is a practice administrator, speaker and blogger. He blogs regularly at PediatricInc.com

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To Teen Guys: Yes, We Really Need To Check ‘Em

Recently, I was called to our community hospital to consult on a teenager with severe lower abdominal pain. The young man, whom I’ll call Dan (not his real name), lived outside of our community, and I’d never met him before. I arrived in Dan’s hospital room, introduced myself, and started talking to him and his mom about his symptoms. After reviewing his chart and getting his history, I proceeded to examine his heart, lungs, and belly. Then I told him, “OK, I need to check your privates, to make sure everything looks healthy and normal. Is that OK?” I was unprepared for Dan’s surprised, negative, very forceful reaction: “NO WAY!” and his mother’s simultaneous exclamation, “No, you DON’T need to do that!”

I asked permission, as I always do, and he definitely hadn’t given it! So I backed up a little bit. “I know it’s embarrassing to have your privates checked. But we don’t have a good explanation yet for the pain you’re having, and if it’s related to something going on with your genitals or your bottom, I definitely don’t want to miss that.”

Dan was still pleasant, but I could see in his eyes he was definitely not buying my explanation. “If you would feel more comfortable with a man doctor, or without your mom in the room, we can definitely do that.” His horrified expression spoke volumes; I think he would have preferred a spinal tap without anesthetic.

His mom said, “Why do you have to do that? The emergency room doctor and the surgeon who’ve seen him today didn’t feel that was necessary.” I explained, in that case, if no one else had checked “down there,” I felt even worse about blowing off that part of the exam. Dan, still with the deer-in-the-headlights look, volunteered, “I had it checked at the clinic where I got my sports physical done. Can we count that?”

We talked about it some more, but Dan stood firmly to his position: “My genitals are not your business, doc!” In the end, I never did perform this important exam.

Clearly, I failed Communication 101 with Dan at explaining the importance of a complete body check, especially in a kid who’s sick enough to be in the hospital. I suspect if I’d known Dan better, he might not have felt so awkward. What I really wanted to communicate was this:

  • It needn’t take very long. A comprehensive external genital exam takes under a minute in boys.
  • We can do whatever it takes to satisfy modesty and cultural appropriateness. It’s OK to kick your mom out and have your dad come in. Or vice versa. It’s OK to request a male doctor. Or vice versa. It’s OK to have a chaperone — in fact, I prefer it that way.
  • We do find problems “down there.” Honestly, most doctors are in such a hurry – we wouldn’t waste time doing something if we never found a problem. In Dan, a rectal exam for his kind of pain would have helped reduce his need for expensive, high-radiation tests. From time to time, either as part of a problem check or as part of a checkup, we’ll find hernias, hormone problems, cancer, eczema, abnormal birthmarks, ulcers, urinary issues, and infections of many kinds (not just STDs). Many years ago, a wise pediatric infectious disease physician taught me to check the whole body – even the unmentionables – for clues to “mystery patients.” He was right, and since then I’ve diagnosed herpes encephalitis, Behcet’s disease, and Crohn’s disease – based primarily on what I found in the genitals and rectal area.
  • Parents, assume nothing. You may think your child has no concerns about his genitals because he’s never mentioned them to you. You may think your son could never have an STD. You may think your son would notice if he had a small amount of blood in his stool. You may think he knows what a hernia or testicular mass feels like. And all these things might be completely true. But they might not.
  • Getting it all “out in the open” makes it easier for a child to bring up a concern. Let’s say a young man discovers a small lump on his genitals, and it’s worrisome to him. When I’m doing a genital exam and already have things uncovered, it seems easier for a concerned teen to “casually” point to the spot and say, “Hey, [indicating] is this OK?” I can easily say, “Oh yes, that’s a ______ and lots of guys have those. They’re normal and won’t interfere with peeing or sex or anything. I have a great handout about that for more information.” It’s harder for a kid to bring up issues “down there” if he thinks that a genital exam isn’t part of the equation. Will I think he’s a pervert or weird for asking: “So… doc…. I have this… thing… on my… privates?”
  • Your female counterparts seem to have gotten over this. I’ve noticed (and I’m not sure why – maybe because I’m a woman) that I rarely have girls or their parents look horrified or surprised when I ask to check a girl’s breasts or pubic area. Much more frequently, I have mothers ask me, “Are you sure 13-year-old Kathy doesn’t need a complete pelvic exam, now that she’s having periods?” Sometimes this is a subtle hint to check for pregnancy or STDs; sometimes parents are trolling for information about their child’s sexual activity, or lack thereof. But much of the time, parents know that ensuring “the lady parts” are important to keep healthy, just like everything else.

So: It’s OK to be embarrassed. It’s OK to sigh, blush, groan, and/or roll your eyes at the doctor. But guys, yes, we really need to check ’em.

Suzanne Berman is a general pediatrician in rural Tennessee. She tries to minimize embarrassment to her husband and son, too.