From the time our kids are born, one of the main concerns we have as parents is keeping them healthy. In fact, most children’s first outing after coming home from the hospital is to the pediatricians office. And from that point on, well-checks, vaccination schedules and annual checkups become part of our parental lexicon.
That’s why I was so surprised to learn recently that the older children get, the less likely they are to have an annual checkup, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In fact, a third of all teens –millions of teens every year– are not getting their yearly exams and unnecessarily exposing themselves to short- and long-term health risks, says Dr. Richard Chung, director of Adolescent Medicine at Duke University Medical Center.
Yearly Exam “Foundation” of Teen Health
“The annual teen checkup is really the foundation of teen healthcare,” explained Dr. Chung. “ [The visits] provide the teen, the parent and the healthcare professional a really great opportunity to discuss a variety of topics that teens are thinking about and making decisions around every single day like nutrition, physical activity, emotional health, sexual health. It’s also a great opportunity to get a full physical exam to make sure the teen’s healthy and to get updated on things like vaccines.”
Communication Crucial to Teen Health
You remember your teen years, right? These few , short years are an important, and often complicated, time for kids. Their bodies are changing. They’re dealing with a lot of mental and emotional changes and challenges. They are making decisions about their sexual health. They may be pressured to try or experimenting with drugs, alcohol and tobacco. During this time, their annual exam becomes about so much more than just making sure their vaccinations are up to date and they are physically healthy—although that’s just as important as the other issues.
“A large chunk of the visit is dedicated to conversation,” said Dr. Chung. “Catching up on how things have been going over the course of the year, updating the medical record and talking to the teen, as well as the parent, about these various health topics like nutrition, physical activity and whatnot.” The annual exam also includes of a comprehensive physical exam and screenings, including weight check, blood pressure and vaccines “to ensure that there aren’t any subtle issues that are ongoing that should be addressed proactively.”
Why Parents Allow Teens to Miss Yearly Exam
We know that yearly well-checks are important for our kids, regardless of their age. So why are we allowing our older ones to miss these crucial appointments?
Dr. Chung said one reason is because we’re all pretty busy. But even more, we’re relying on acute care—or care only when they’re sick—to address all issues of our teen’s health. “Acute care visits are critical; they serve an essential function. But [they’re] really the tip of the iceberg as far as [addressing] the experiences [teens are] having…So if we’re just going from acute care visit to acute care visit, we’re really only scratching the surface. There’s much more that we can do on the part of our teen.”
Teen/Doctor Confidentiality & Parents
Another reason teens may not be going to the doctor is because they’re afraid or embarrassed to talk to their doctor about some of the things they are dealing with—be it physical or mental issues, sexual health issues, or drug and alcohol use. And many teens don’t want their parents to know about some of these issues.
“We know that teens do better when confidential care is available to them. As healthcare professionals that’s really the main thing we go by as far as how we engage in care,” said Chung. “I encourage parents to think of the time they leave their teen with the healthcare professional not as being downgraded from the process, but [the] teen [being] upgraded. We’re simply saying that your teen is ready to engage in their own healthcare, to ask their own questions, and to really take control.”
There are some limitations to the amount of confidentiality a teen can expect from their doctor. If there are issues that pose an immediate risk to the teen’s life, parents are immediately involved. Dr. Chung said in order to strike the right balance, the parent, the teen and the doctor need to trust each other and talk to each other honestly and consistently.
“I would encourage [parents] to talk with their [child’s] doctor and ask them specifically, ‘What does my teen need during this complicated time?’ Not only to stay well day-to-day but to arrive at 18 or 21 or beyond [as a] truly capable and competent adult.”
Click on the video below to see my full interview with Dr. Chung, including tips on how parents can encourage healthy habits in their teen.