Go to hospital or provide first aid? Survey reveals parents aren't sure

Would you know how to response in an emergency?
Would you know how to response in an emergency? Photo: Shutterstock

If your child starts choking, swallows medication or sustains a minor burn should you provide first aid, call triple 0, or rush them straight to emergency? A new poll shows that an alarming number of parents aren't sure how to respond to these various scenarios, unintentionally placing their kids at risk.

"When young children experience urgent medical situations, parents have to make decisions about whether to administer first aid at home, call for advice or seek emergency care," says Gary Freed, who co-directed the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital survey. "Our report suggests that some parents may be using the ER for common situations that could be handled at home." 

But while "true emergencies" do warrant hospital trips, Freed acknowledges that determining what's an emergency and what's not "can be a confusing and nerve-wracking experience for parents who want to make the right decision".

As part of the poll, a group of 2,051 parents with at least one child aged between 0 and five years old, were given a number of different scenarios describing -different medical situations. Mums and dads were asked to indicate how confident they were that they would know what to do if the  scenario happened to their child - and to describe exactly what actions they'd take.

In the first situation, that of a child getting a small burn on the arm from a hot saucepan, 71 per cent of parents were confident they knew how to treat it.  For 82 per cent, treatment involved using cold water, ice or first aid cream on the burn. Five per cent of those polled, however, said they would call 000 for a small burn, while 11 per cent said they'd rush their little one straight to emergency.

If their child was choking, less than half (48 per cent) of parents said they'd know instantly how to act. Most reported that they would try to remove the object using the Heimlich maneouver (69 percent), their finger (54 per cent), by hitting their child on the back (48 per cent) or turning their child upside down (25 per cent). More than a quarter (28 per cent) said they'd call triple zero if their child was choking, while 8 per cent said they'd drive their child directly to hospital.

This is concerning, Freed notes, given a child who is choking would benefit more from immediate attention rather than delayed treatment due to a car trip.

(Watch the video below for more information.)

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When it came to seeking treatment for accidental poisoning, parents generally indicated that they knew what to do if their child had ingested something dangerous, such as medication.

  • 53 per cent would remove pills from their child's mouth
  • 26 per cent would try to make their child throw up
  • 61 per cent would call poison control, their child's doctor (25 per cent) or triple 0 (26 per cent) for advice
  • 32 per cent would take their child to emergency

​"Generally, calling Poison Control is an excellent first step to take if a parent suspects their child swallowed something harmful," says Freed, adding that Poison control staff are trained to elicit information from parents around the type of medication their child might have swallowed - and exactly what to do next.  (In Australia you can call the Poisons Information Line 24 hours a day on 13 11 26.)

Freed also notes that in the "heat of the moment", parents rushing to emergency might forget to bring the source of the poisoning, meaning treating doctors may not have the right information to determine the appropriate treatment.

Image/C.S Mott Children's Hospital, National Poll on Children's Health, 2017.

The poll also revealed that 43 per cent of parents have never undergone any first aid or medical training. Only 10 per cent of mums and dads had received first aid training in the past 12 months, with 24 per cent undertaking a course 1-5 years prior.

"Even with appropriate supervision, young children experience urgent medical scenarios, and many parents may be unprepared," says Freed. "We found that parents who had recent first aid training were more confident in handling common medical situations."

While Freed notes that in some cases, such as a small burn, parents are able to consult a first aid resource to help them respond appropriately, other situations, like choking, are clearly "more time-sensitive and require immediate action".

"First aid training can help parents stay calm and manage the situation more effectively," he said.

Unsure what's an emergency and what's not?  C.S. Mott Children's Hospital provides the following guidelines:

Visit ED if your child has:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe allergic reaction (shortness of breath, lip/oral swelling, persistent vomiting, altered mental status)
  • High fever with headache and stiff neck
  • Suddenly hard to wake up
  • Sudden loss of sight, speech or movement
  • Broken bone pushing through the skin
  • Body part near an injured bone that is numb, tingling, weak, cold or pale
  • Heavy bleeding or deep wound
  • Serious burn
  • Coughing or throwing up blood
  • Fast heartbeat that doesn't slow down
  • Vomiting followed by dry mouth, not crying tears, no urination in more than eight hours or acting very sleepy/"out of it"

Visit urgent care or a pediatrician for:

  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea
  • Coughs, colds and sore throats
  • Upset stomach
  • Bladder and urinary tract infections
  • Bumps, minor cuts and scrapes
  • Earaches
  • Sinus pain
  • Skin problems
  • Sprains and strains

Call 000 in case of:

  • Choking
  • Severe difficulty breathing
  • Head injury and the child is unconscious
  • Injury to neck or spine
  • Child is not breathing or has turned blue
  • Severe burn
  • Seizure lasting more than five minutes
  • Bleeding that can't be stopped

You can call the Poisons Information Line 24 hours a day from anywhere in Australia on 13 11 26.