MAYWOOD, Ill. – Though the medical milestone of leaving one’s pediatrician for most doesn’t have its own page in the childhood memory book, it can be a difficult step for both kids and parents. Pediatric medicine generally refers to care for people from birth through age 21. Though the actual age of when a young person must enter the world of adult medicine may vary, the reality is that sooner or later it’s time to say goodbye to the pediatrician.
It’s not always an easy transition to medical “adulthood.” In many ways teens and young adults seem to be growing up faster, dealing with more “adult” topics and issues at an earlier age. On the other hand, many are slow to take on responsibilities even as simple as getting up on their own in the morning or completing tasks around the house.
“As a society we would like a one-size-fits-all approach to growing up. We want to say you’re an adult and ready for adult responsibility when you turn 18, but that this rarely is the case. Children mature at different times and this is especially apparent in the teen and young-adult years. What works for one child at age 16 might be too much for another who is 21,” said Garry Sigman, MD, adolescent medicine expert at Loyola University Health System and associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
Adult medicine physicians expect their patients to take an active interest and responsibility in their own health care. Patients need to know their medical history, medications, insurance information and how to navigate the health-care system.
“This can be daunting for even the most responsible of adults, let alone an adolescent who is just branching out into the world of responsibility,” Sigman said.
It can be a tough transition for parents, too, especially if the child has a chronic illness.
“Parents want to be helpful, and honestly, it’s often easier and less time-consuming to take care of a child’s medical needs than to teach them to do it themselves. But, independence comes slowly and it’s important to give your children the tools they need to care for themselves as adults,” Sigman said.
So how can parents make this transition easier? According to Sigman, one of the best things they can do is teach their children to take responsibility for their own medical needs.
“The adolescent period should be used to practice and learn skills needed for self-care. Let the teen have a say in the treatment plan, help your teen understand his or her prescribed medications and how to use them, and let your adolescent be the primary communicator with the doctor. Allow the teen to speak up if he or she does not agree with the treatment plan or has reservations. It’s hard to let go, but it will better prepare the child for what is ahead,” Sigman said.
He also suggests working with the pediatrician to slowly move responsibility for your child’s health from you, the parent, to the adolescent. It will make the transition easier and smoother.
Here are some ways to get started:
When in the doctor’s office, have the pediatrician talk to the child, not the parent, about symptoms and medical history. Allow the teen to be alone in the exam room for some time with the doctor.
When a health concern arises, instead of asking mom or dad for advice, encourage teens to contact the doctor or nurse directly by phone or e-mail.
Discuss consumer issues like health insurance statements and bills so your child understands the costs involved and how to best utilize health-care dollars.
“Also, ask your pediatrician if he or she has any recommendations for a new doctor. He or she knows your child and will know several internists who would be a good fit,” Sigman said. “Remember, when your child sees an adult internist, you will not be invited into the room. By taking these steps your young adult will feel more prepared to talk like an adult to the physician and you’ll know your child is ready to be an advocate for his or her own health.”
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