Sun sets under smoky skies as girls play in the sand at the Moonlight Beach in Encinitas

Sun sets under smoky skies as girls play in the sand at the Moonlight Beach in Encinitas (Mike Blake, Reuters)

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Pediatricians' offices that offer more extensive counseling and information on safer sun practices are no more likely to have parents who follow that advice than offices that offer less intensive counseling, according to a new study.

Another problem: Kids who pursued physical exercise were twice as likely to suffer sunburns. That wasn't surprising, but it concerned the study's authors because the brochures about exercise were separate from those about sun protection and avoiding rays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. - meaning some kids might get one message, but not the other.

"Physicians are in the habit of writing prescriptions and advising how to use the medication. It is a huge step for physicians to take the step of engaging the parent/child in the decision to change behavior," Dr. June Robinson, the senior author of the study, told Reuters Health by email.

It's possible that the way pediatricians offer such counseling - more as a prescription rather than as a way to engage parents and find ways to change their behavior - led to the results, said Robinson, a dermatology professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children's doctors should advise their patients about sunburns and tanning.

To get a sense of what advice doctors offer, Robinson and her colleagues surveyed 30 medical staff members at three pediatricians' offices in the Chicago area about their recommendations regarding sun protection.

One office provided the most extensive counseling on sun protection, offering it year-round during regular check-ups, physical exams and when the child came in with a sunburn.

This included advice on wearing and reapplying sun block and protective clothing and seeking shade.

The office that provided the least extensive counseling only advised families about sun protection when they were about to go on a family vacation or to summer camp or when the child had a sunburn.

Staff there also only offered recommendations on wearing sun block.

The other office fell somewhere between the two in how much sun protection counseling it provided.

Robinson's colleagues then surveyed 100 parents who had visited one of the offices with a child between nine and 16 years old.

They asked the parents about their children's behaviors, such as how long they spent in the sun, whether they used indoor tanning, how many sunburns they had had, and whether they used sun block.

The researchers found that the parents who visited the office with the most extensive counseling were no more likely to practice sun-safe habits than the parents who visited the office that offered the least amount of advice.

For instance, children who were seen at the office that gave the most advice scored an average of 10 on a 39-point scale of how well they were sun-protected, compared to a score of 12 among children seen at the office that offered the least advice.

A score of one is considered best protected, while 39 is totally unprotected from the sun.

When Robinson's group took into account factors such as the child's age and skin tone, the differences between the offices were so small that they were likely due to chance.

And those children who exercised outdoors between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. "were twice as likely to use inadequate sun protection and sustain sunburns," according to the study, than those who performed exercise outside of those hours.