How much one-on-one time does your tween or teen get with their health care provider? Do you usually stay in the room for their well-visits? Do you wait outside while the doctor enters the room accompanied by a nurse or other support staff? Do you know if the doctor is at any point offering to meet privately with your child?
A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health has revealed that many teens and young adults rarely or never meet privately with their health care providers. The study analyzed data from over 1900 respondents between the ages of 23 and 26 who took part in a 2016 survey. Researchers found that only about half of the young people surveyed had ever had a confidential conversation with their health care provider. The number was higher among females, with only 55 percent saying they’d had private time with their doctor, while among males the number was at 49 percent.
Lower age groups fared quite a bit worse, with a mere 22 percent of 13- to 14-year-old girls ever having had private time with their doc, and only 14 percent of boys from the same age group. Numbers were slightly higher for young adults who participated in the survey, with 68 percent of women and 61 percent of men reporting that they’d had one-on-ones with their doctors. Researchers also found that for those who did have private time, overall satisfaction with their care was higher, and they had more positive attitudes about preventative services like vaccinations, screening, and counseling.
As an adult, I can vouch for how critical it is to get one-on-one time with your doctor. So often there is an assistant present, and for someone who is timid or unsure, it can be incredibly difficult to speak up and ask for a private conversation. My last doctor’s appointment culminated in my doctor spending 45 minutes talking to me about my depression and its potential causes. That one-on-one conversation led to me getting the care I needed, but it wasn’t a conversation I asked for—my doctor came in to talk with me because I had written on the confidential questionnaire that I was feeling depressed, and she wanted to make sure to follow-up with me.
A month prior, I had gone to my annual gynecology exam swearing to myself I would tell my doctor I was depressed. I did write it on the form provided, but he didn’t ask about it, and I was too embarrassed to speak up with his assistant present. I can only imagine how much more harrowing this experience would feel for a shy teen.
So how do we make sure teens and young adults are getting this important attention from their health care providers? Stephanie Grilo, lead author on the study and a doctoral candidate at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, says providers need to introduce the concept of private time and confidentiality early.
As for parents, of course we hope our kids will come to us with questions. We want to believe we have set the stage for open dialogue, and we want to believe there is no topic our kids would be afraid to broach with us. But the fact is, sometimes no matter what we do, our kids may have questions that feel too big or too embarrassing or just too private to discuss with their parents. So we need to encourage this additional support system.
We can do this by requesting that our kids’ doctors offer this opportunity for private, open dialogue. We can remind our teens that everything they tell their doctor is confidential, with the only exception being if a patient is in danger of harming themselves or others. We can encourage our teens to jot down questions or topics they want to bring up either on a piece of paper or on a note in their phone.
Children aged 12 and over should fill out their own questionnaires, and parents should make it clear that their privacy will be respected. We can reassure our kids that it is highly unlikely that anything they tell their doctor would be surprising or shocking, and nothing they ask would be considered insignificant or stupid. Doctors have heard it all, and they’re trained to deal with all manner of questions from teens. We can tell our teens that the more honest they are with their doctor, the better and more appropriate the care they will receive.
It may feel uncomfortable or scary to let go of our kids when it comes to healthcare issues. We parents want to feel like we are our kids’ main support system. We want to feel they can trust us enough to come to us with their biggest questions. But it is in our kids’ best interest if we do this bit of legwork to make sure they have this critical added source of support—just in case they ever need it.
Kristen Mae is a proud indie novelist with three books published, all of which hit bestseller on Amazon. She blogs infrequently at Abandoning Pretense and writes for various media outlets about parenthood, relationships, and current events.