While every day seems to bring extraordinary new advances in science – robotic surgery, individually targeted medications, and even gene therapy – there are many people who currently approach the science of medicine with skepticism.
While it is the right of legally competent adults in a free society to chose how best to care for their own health, to explore holistic or alternative therapies, or avoid medicine altogether, it is more complex when they are skeptical of accepted medical practice in managing the health of their children. For those parents who trust you enough to bring their children to you for care but remain skeptical of vaccines or other treatments, you have an opportunity to work with that trust and engage in a discussion so that they might reconsider their position on valuable and even life-saving treatments for their children.
In each of these cases, launching into an enthusiastic explanation of the advanced statistics that underpin your recommendation is unlikely to bridge the gap. Instead, you want to start with these parents by being curious. Resist the urge to tell, and listen instead.What is their understanding of the problem you are treating or preventing? What have they heard or read about the treatment or test in question? What do they most fear is going to happen to their child if they do or do not accept your recommendation? Are there specific events (with their child or with the health care system) that have informed this fear?
Respectfully listening to their experiences, thoughts, and feelings goes a long way toward building a trusting alliance. It can help overcome feelings of distrust or defensiveness around authority figures. And it models the thoughtful, respectful give and take that are essential to a healthy collaboration between pediatrician and parents.
Once you have information about what they think and some about how they think and make decisions, you then can offer your perspective. “You are the expert on your child, what I bring to this equation is experience with (this problem) and with assessing the scientific evidence that guides treatments in medicine. It is true that treatments often change as we learn more, but here is what the evidence currently supports.”