Not Just for Medicine

. February 1, 2013.

For parents, an annual checkup with the family doctor might seem to be a routine part of the back-to-school season — perhaps too routine. A new report from the University of Michigan emphasizes a child's doctor visits should be about far more than pills and shots. They're a crucial opportunity for both doctor and parent to engage with the child and help them form healthy attitudes aboutheir lives.

Children between the ages of five and 12 are establishing patterns of behavior that can last a lifetime, so it's important that they receive the right messages from their health-care providers. The "counseling" aspect of doctor- patient relationships can be just as important, in the long term, as actual direct treatment. From the importance of proper diet and exercise, to the need to balance "screen time" like television and video games with more active pursuits, to getting a proper amount of sleep, the discussion can be tailored to the child's age and needs.

As children grow older, it becomes increasingly important for doctors and parents to counsel them on the dangers of high-risk behaviors. According to a 2007 study, 24 percent of children 13 years old had already had their first drink of alcohol, so education must begin early. The risks of smoking and other drug use should also be addressed as early as possible. The leading cause of death in children ages five to 12 is accidents, so basic safety instruction including seat-belt and bike helmet use should be emphasized.

A regular schedule of doctor visits is crucial for families, but parents should remember that it can be as much about education as about medicine.