Choosing a doctor for your children is one of the most important decisions new parents make. That doctor, or practice, is essentially a co-pilot helping you care for the health, development and well-being of your child, while empowering you, as the pilot, to make healthy decisions for your family. In short, choosing a physician is no small task.
So, how can you pick the right co-pilot for your growing family’s health needs? One way you can evaluate a specific practice’s potential fit for your family is to evaluate their views and approach to a variety of topics you know will come up. Because vaccines are a universal part of newborn, infant and early childhood visits, the topic of vaccines can serve as a good barometer for several reasons.
- Vaccines are a topic that will come up quickly since the hepatitis B vaccine is recommended within 24 hours of birth.
- Vaccines will come up often. During the first year of life, almost every visit will include a conversation about vaccines.
- Vaccines are often a topic you may already have questions about. So, discussing them during the process of choosing a provider helps you to see how they answer questions, what sources of information they provide as resources, and how they tend to communicate. Are questions readily answered? Are the answers presented in a way that you understand? Are additional resources provided?
For these reasons, vaccine conversations are a great opportunity to get familiar with a healthcare provider and his or her practice style.
Yet, even as you have these conversations, you may still have some vaccine-related concerns. Healthcare providers understand this, and most of them try to answer your questions and help you be more comfortable with one of the most emotional aspects of new parenthood. Unfortunately, in an attempt to placate parents’ concerns, a healthcare provider may offer an “alternative” immunization schedule to replace the CDC’s recommended immunization schedule. While this may make a physician seem like a potentially good co-pilot or fit for your family, it may actually be a sign of something else — a doctor who sees him/herself as better equipped to make a schedule than groups of experts with a variety of backgrounds and areas of expertise. While this type of “independent” approach may be appealing, parents should proceed with caution for a couple of reasons. First, only the recommended schedule has been tested. Second, it means this provider or office may be willing to stray from collective scientific understanding on other topics as well.
The benefits of vaccinating according to the recommended immunization schedule far outweigh any theoretical risks. Therefore, when speaking to a prospective physician about vaccines, consider the following types of statements to be RED FLAGS TO WATCH FOR:
- Some vaccines are not necessary — Certain “alternative” schedules forego vaccines that the doctor doesn’t deem necessary because the diseases are not rampant in their community. The fact of the matter is, those diseases are no longer present because of vaccines, and maintaining a highly vaccinated population is what keeps them out.
Healthy children who skip those vaccines then rely on protection afforded in the community, essentially relying on other parents to maintain the collective health of the community by vaccinating their children. Said another way, the provider is saying your child is more important than those getting vaccinated. While this may appear favorable to you — a way to protect your child without any “risks” — you should ask yourself what this says about a healthcare provider who is willing to pick and choose which community members should or should not contribute to the health of the community.
- Some vaccines should be delayed or separated because of certain ingredients — This sounds innocent enough, but choosing to do so is abandoning scientific evidence in favor of unfounded fears. The timing of the schedule is designed to protect children from harmful diseases before their risk of disease increases. For example, as maternal antibodies wane, immunizations are timed so that the infant’s own immune protection is developed. That only works if vaccines are given according to the scientifically tested schedule. Further, the ingredients that have been sources of concern related to safety are present in miniscule amounts and have been found to be safe.
Using unscientific changes to an already tested schedule does not provide additional protection. In fact, quite the opposite. It puts children at unnecessary risk while providing superficial placation to ease fear.
- Vaccines are not well tested — Before vaccines are licensed in the U.S., they undergo decades of scientific testing that involves thousands and thousands of study participants. Part of that testing examines how vaccines interact as part of the recommended immunization schedule. Providers who suggest that vaccines are not well tested are essentially admitting how little they know about the process of making vaccines.
The reality is that “alternative” schedules created by individual doctors have not undergone scientific testing. Statements related to their experiences with these schedules in their practices are by definition not controlled studies since they only look at the group of people who tried it. Comparisons with national samples are also not appropriate because they do not account for the variability found in large, diverse populations from different geographic regions.
Yes, being a parent can be scary. Watching your child receive up to five vaccines at a time, and as many as 26 inoculations over their first two years of life is unsettling. However, it is your pediatrician’s job to, above all else, have your child’s best interests at heart. Doing so means utilizing all medically safe tools and resources available. It does not mean choosing to assert their own beliefs over medical science in an attempt to assuage fears. The VEC recently published a new question-and-answer sheet about doctors who make alternative schedules, which has more information.