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New Healthcare for Teens

Docs for Teens
By
WebMD Feature

Everyone's heard the old saying that teenagers "think they're immortal." That's one explanation for why they're less likely to go to the doctors than any other part of the U.S. population.

But is it true? As any teen can tell you, being a teenager is hardly carefree. Experts agree. While they statistically don't have a great number of medical problems, teenagers are exposed to a lot of risks, says Charles Irwin, MD, president of the Society for Adolescent Medicine and director of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at UCSF. Being a teen often means facing a lot of stress and hard choices about issues like using alcohol and drugs or having sex.

Despite the significant risks that teens face, Mary-Ann Shafer, MD, argues that teenagers are not always well-served by the traditional healthcare system and they can get stuck in limbo. "Teens reach a certain age where they're not kids, but they're not adults either, so neither the internists nor the classic pediatricians want to take care of them."

Shafer, who is associate director of adolescent medicine at UCSF, says that some teens are seeking out experts who specialize in treating teens, especially at centers like hers. And that's making not only teens happy, but their parents, too.

More Than Medicine

So what's wrong with continuing to see the family pediatrician as a teenager?

Often nothing. But according to Shafer and Irwin,, for a teen, hitting puberty can sometimes make the relationship with his or her pediatrician awkward. It may feel strange to ask your doctor about sex or drugs when, just a few years before, this same doctor was giving you lollipops after you got your shots. A teenager may find it hard to take herself seriously if she has to sit in a pediatrician's waiting room, surrounded by wailing toddlers, picture books, and stuffed animals. For many teens, it may just seem easier and less embarrassing to stay away from the doctor altogether.

But to negotiate the risks that teenagers face, they could really use the help. The teenage years are a short period of time with a profound impact on the rest of a person's life, according to Shafer. A lot of the behaviors and habits -- both good and bad -- that people have as adults develop when they are teens.

The emphasis in adolescent medicine isn't strictly medical. "The advantage for a teenager seeing an expert in adolescent health is that they have a physician who knows about not only the physiological issues of adolescence, but also the behavioral." Says Irwin.

Shafer agrees. "When I do a well-care visit with a teenager," Shafer says, "most of the time, I'm doing more than a physical." She's often talking with them about the issues they're worried about, including alcohol, drugs, and the risks of sex.

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