Giving Teens a Voice in Health Care Decisions

As a parent, you have had to make all of the decisions about your children’s health care. But if you have teens, or even preteens, now is the time to allow them to take a more active role in managing their own care. We need to prepare them for adulthood, and medical care is a major part of that. There are really three parts to the process of preparing teenagers to know how to manage their own health care: 1) teaching teens the basics of our healthcare system and how it works, 2) informing them about their own health history and medical information, and 3) giving them the opportunity to practice taking care of themselves and making health decisions.

If we don’t give them this information and the opportunity to make health decisions, they will be completely overwhelmed when they leave for college or to live on their own. The transition to independence will go more smoothly if you begin, when they are adolescents, to change your role in their healthcare from decision-maker to coach.

Teaching Teens the Basics

Our healthcare system is not intuitive. If no one teaches you, how would you ever know how to find a physician, obtain a referral, refill a prescription, manage insurance, and the list goes on. You must explain these concepts to teens so that they will know what to do when they are a young adult. Things your teen should know are:

  • How to make their own doctor appointments.
  • How to select an adult primary care doctor. Pediatricians generally end patient care after the age of 18. If your teen is headed to college, find out if their college offers a student health center. Otherwise, teach them how to select a doctor in the area they will be living.
  • How to obtain a referral for a specialist, if needed.
  • How to fill and refill a prescription.
  • How to contact their health insurance representative.
  • What their insurance does and does not cover.
  • When their medical coverage on their parents’ insurance expires.
  • When and why they should seek a second opinion.
  • What the most common over-the-counter medications are and their uses.
  • Where to go when they need medical care outside of normal doctor office hours. Emergency rooms are usually open all the time, and are only for emergencies, like a car accident or a serious head injury. Urgent care centers are a great option for seeing a doctor in off-hours or when a primary care physician isn’t available. They should know where the closest emergency room and urgent care center is.


Providing Teens Their Medical Information

It is absolutely vital that teens know their own health history before they go out on their own. They should:

  • Have a copy of their vaccines. Their pediatrician will be glad to discuss what vaccines your teen has already had and what ones they will need.
  • Know any prescription medications (and dosages) they are on and why. Some teens may forget to take medications once you’re no longer there to remind them. Depending on the medication, this can have adverse reactions. Have a conversation about why it’s important to remember these medications, and then have them practice being responsible for taking the prescription while they are still home.
  • Be aware of any allergies they have, especially to medications, such as penicillin.
  • Know their past medical history, such as hospitalizations, surgeries, or major treatments.
  • Know how to get copies of medical records from a previous doctor.
  • Be aware of their family’s medical history, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, as many conditions can be hereditary or genetic.
  • Understand any chronic conditions they have, such as asthma or diabetes.


Allowing Teens to Take Charge of their Health

As your child enters adolescence, encourage him or her to spend time alone with medical professionals (without you in the room). This helps establish trust within the patient–provider relationship, and lets your child learn how to talk to a doctor and not be afraid. They need practice asking questions and becoming more comfortable speaking with a doctor. Additionally, giving them time alone with their doctor allows your child the opportunity speak honestly and ask questions they might be too embarrassed to ask in front of you.

We should also let teens know how important it is to feel a trust and/or connection with a doctor. If they select one doctor and don’t like them, they should know that they absolutely should look again for a different doctor. Everyone has different personalities, so inevitably, some doctors and patients just won’t connect well. Remind your teen that they need to find a doctor that they feel confident in.

Whenever possible, involve your teens in making decisions about their health care now. This will likely take some extra effort and a bit of patience on your part at first, but it is vitally important that your teens get practice in making these types of decisions. The best way to involve them is to do the following:

  • Explain their diagnosis or the issue in age appropriate terms and have them repeat it back to make sure they understand.
  • Detail the different options available to address the issue, such as what will happen if you get no treatment, what will happen if they use such and such drug, what will happen if they try physical therapy, etc. Explain the pros and cons of each choice. If a prescription is one of the options, be sure to explain the possible side effects.
  • Listen to their opinion about what they want to do. Make sure they can explain why they feel that way.
  • Explain your opinion about the issue, and then make a joint decision together.

A simple example that can give your teen the opportunity to practice making a health care decision is whether or not to get the flu vaccine each year. You should tell them what they might experience if they get the flu, how effective the flu vaccine is, and discuss the pros and cons of getting vs. not getting the vaccine.

Final Thoughts…

Having your teen weigh in on their own health care is just another important step they need to take on the path to a responsible adulthood. So many parents think their role is to protect their child, but when your child has reached adolescence, your role is much more about coaching your teen so that they learn the skills they need to be successful and healthy as an adult.

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