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Teaching Teens to Navigate the Healthcare System
To become savvy consumers of an increasingly complex healthcare system, adolescents need to fully understand what healthcare entails. It's clear we need to teach our children about the healthcare system. But how, and when, should the lessons start?
Because the process is complicated, it's recommended that you start involving your child around the age of 12. You can start out slowly, like letting your child confirm an appointment or call in a prescription refill. Start explaining any medical conditions in words they understand. If they take medications, take some time to explain what they are and why they take them. If your child has a chronic condition that needs to be managed, have them go through the process of ordering medical supplies or equipment the next time its needed.
Understanding Health Insurance
Health insurance changes quickly. Explain how your coverage works and why it may be different from someone else's. When you get education materials for open enrollment periods, share the information with your child. This will help them have a better understanding on how plans are set up, how they work, and how much they cost.
Keep in mind that your adolescent will soon become a healthcare consumer. The more information they have, the better choices they will make when they are independent.
Getting to Know the Doctor
If your child has an honest, trusting relationship with their family doctor, let them have some alone time during visits. Your child may have questions they don't feel comfortable discussing with you in the room. This helps foster trust for you, your child, and the doctor. Your child needs to know that any discussions with the doctor are confidential, and they may have a place to turn to when they need it. It is also important for you as parent to understand and respect that confidentiality.
As your child gets older, they should be able to take on more responsibility. This means you will have to give up more control and allow your child to select a doctor, know their own and family medical histories, start learning more about managing prescriptions, and even making their own appointments.
By mid-adolescence, they are able to understand health risk behaviors. They may want to be alone with their doctor for the whole appointment to ask more thoughtful questions or be more involved. It is important to make them feel comfortable about it, even if it's hard for you to let them have control.
If your adolescent has a chronic medical condition, such as diabetes or asthma, it may be more difficult for you to relinquish that control. By age 15 or 16, even adolescents with chronic illnesses should begin developing one-on-one relationships with their healthcare providers. You can still provide support, but it's important for your child to learn how to manage their condition on their own terms.
Setting a Good Example
Children learn a lot from your example, so show your children you're serious about the importance of preventive care by scheduling and keeping appointments for regular check-ups and health screenings.
Learning About Confidentiality
Confidentiality is always an issue in doctor-patient relationships. Every state has a set of legally protected confidential services available to minors. Some of these services may include diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy-related services including contraception and abortion, and services related to drug or alcohol abuse. Encourage your child to research state legislators' offices and websites to find out which confidential services are available in your state.
Becoming Healthcare Savvy
Adolescents who have gained an understanding of the healthcare system fare better when they leave home.
They will have a better understanding of:
- How to gain access to the system
- What legally confidential services are available to them
- How to give feedback to and ask questions of their providers
- How to better listen to their provider
- What to expect during a medical examination
- Better understanding of their own health issues or illness
Adolescents with little knowledge of the healthcare system will be more anxious and more likely to have false expectations about the care available to them.
When teens go to college, they should be confident interacting with the system and know how to access healthcare at school. They should have health insurance and be educated about the limits, coverage, and use of their plans.
As your children grow into adulthood, there are a lot of rocky roads to navigate. Take the time to teach them the ins and outs of the healthcare system.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
The Society for Adolescent Medicine
Canadian Health Network
American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, et al. Supporting the health care transition from adolescence to adulthood in the medical home. Pediatrics. 2011;128(1):182-200.
Giving teens a voice in health care decisions. KidsHealth website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/system/ill/teen%5Fhealth%5Fcare.html. Updated July 2012. Accessed December 12, 2012.
Taking charge of your medical care. Nemours Kids Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/teen/your%5Fbody/medical%5Fcare/medical-care.html. Updated March 2013. Accessed December 12, 2013.
Transitions. A guide to getting older and changing health care providers (HCPs). Young Men's Health website. Available at: http://www.youngmenshealthsite.org/transitions.html. Updated October 14, 2010. Accessed December 12, 2013.
Transitioning from pediatric to adult health care: A guide for parents. Young Men's Health website. Available at: http://www.youngmenshealthsite.org/helping%5Fson%5Ftransition%5Ffrom%5Fpediatric%5Fhealth%5Fcare.html. Updated October 1, 2010. Accessed December 12, 2013.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 12/2013
- Update Date: 12/12/2013