Your health-in your hands: do you dread those annual health checkups?

It’s time for your annual medical checkup. Your morn drives you to the pediatrician’s office. The waiting room, which is decorated with pictures of the characters on Sesame Street, is full of crying babies. When the nurse finally calls your name, Mom follows you into the examining room. Your doctor arrives and starts asking Mom questions about your health.

Medical Checkup

Sound familiar? As you get older, you may find that doctor visits leave you with a headache. Most pediatricians’ offices, with their pint-size chairs, sets of blocks, and stacks of parenting magazines, aren’t very welcoming to teens. If your longtime doctor is of the opposite sex, you may feel strange being examined by him or her, even though it never bothered you before. And having a parent around makes it tough to ask questions on subjects like sex, alcohol, smoking – even dieting.

If circumstances like those are keeping you from getting adequate health care, you’re not alone. According to a recent article in the journal Pediatrics, the number of doctor visits being made for 11- to 21-year-olds is dropping. Even though there are sufficient numbers of physicians, nurses, and healthcare workers available to treat them, kids this age aren’t seeing their doctors as often as they need to.

Healthy Behavior = Healthy Body

Don’t let childish decor at your doc’s office keep you from getting the care you need. It is important that teens stay on top of medical issues that affect them. Although statistics show that adolescents are healthier overall than members of other age-groups, many of the lifestyle choices that teens make at this age have long-term consequences on their life and health.

health-and-teenConsider these 2003 figures, courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

1. Smoking. Fifty-eight percent of ninth through 12th graders admitted that they had tried cigarettes at least once.

2. Alcohol. Nearly 75 percent reported that they’d tried booze at least once.

3. Sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy. Every year, approximately 3 million teens in the United States contract a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Nearly 900,000 teenage girls in the United States become pregnant. Diet and exercise. Obesity is on the rise among American adolescents, 38 percent of whom admitted that they watched three or more hours of TV a day.

Getting Comfortable

At about age 12, many kids begin the gradual process of assuming responsibility for their own health care. This is the age when pediatricians often start to direct questions to the adolescent, not the parent, says John Seiverding. Seiverding, who has worked with teens in San Francisco and upstate New York, is one of a small but growing number of pediatricians who have trained as specialists in adolescent medicine.

“Adolescence is a dramatic period of social change. Kids are learning how to make life decisions, like how to take care of their health,” he explained. “Around the age of 14 or 15, most kids begin to really view themselves as the patient.”

As the patient, you may decide that you’d be more comfortable seeing a new doctor. The guidelines for doing so are “the same as they would be for a person of any age,” Seiverding told Current Health. “Ask yourself, Does the doctor listen to you? Does he or she take you seriously? Is the doctor someone who addresses your concerns and you?”

Whether you settle on a pediatrician, a family practitioner, or an adolescent specialist, find a doctor you feel you can trust and who is aware of “how adolescents perceive the world,” he advised. He added that some adults are dismissive of issues that are monumentally important to teens, such as acne and body image. Teens appreciate a doctor who empathizes with them and helps them address those problems.

Keeping It Quiet

girl-and-doctorKnowing that a doctor will respect their privacy is another vital consideration for most teens. Kids under age 16 need a parent’s permission to receive medical treatment. (A letter from a parent is usually all that is needed for a teen’s current doctor to see the teen on his or her own.) Certain issues – including sexual issues, substance abuse, and mental health – are considered to be privileged information in many states. That means a doctor cannot disclose this information to anyone, including the patient’s parents, without the patient’s permission.

However, facts that indicate that a teen is in danger from physical or sexual abuse or is at risk for suicide or homicide must by law be reported to the authorities. Keep in mind that confidentiality can be compromised by a teen’s health insurance. Because many teens are covered by their parents’ insurance plans, bills for telltale tests and sensitive procedures may end up being sent to the parents’ homes.

However, most doctors who treat teens are accustomed to balancing a teen’s right to privacy with a parent’s right to know. “Many parents are more than happy to step out of the room to allow doctor and patient a chance to have a private discussion,” Seiverding told CH. “Parents want doctors to talk to their kids about the things, like sex, that they themselves are uncomfortable talking about.”

From height and weight to skin care, you may have many questions, and your doctor is just the person to consult about them. “Get your questions answered,” urged Seiverding. “You might not think you can voice them, but you can, and your medical provider can help you.”

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