Teenagers need to learn how to navigate the healthcare system, just as they need to learn how to drive a car and balance a checkbook. That's the message from Trisha Torrey, author of the new book, You Bet Your Life: The 10 Mistakes Every Patient Makes (Langdon Street Press, $16.95)."It used to be we really didn't have to have these healthcare conversations," says Torrey, whose two daughters are in their 20s. "But now we're being asked to give our teenagers vaccinations for HPV, whooping cough, and meningitis. These things didn't exist when my girls were in high school."
I realized that many teenagers and parents could use help making the most of doctor visits when I wrote earlier this month about five ways parents can prevent teenage drinking. "Tenacious parents who won't leave the examination room" was listed by the researchers as a major barrier to teens having an honest conversation with their doctor about drinking and other health issues. That made me wonder how families could handle doctor visits better. I asked Torrey because she became an expert on navigating the healthcare system after she was misdiagnosed with a terminal form of lymphoma in 2004. It turned out she didn't have cancer at all, but wouldn't have known that had she not Googled her diagnosis and tracked down missing lab reports.
Here are six simple ways that teenagers can take control of their healthcare, a skill they need both now and ahead:
1. You're the expert on your body. Teenagers know at least as much as their doctors about their own bodies. So half of the knowledge in the doctor's office comes from them. Don't be afraid to tell the doctor what's going on, even if it's embarrassing.
2. Honesty pays off. Doctors are required by oath and law to keep private any information they get from a patient. Doctors don't judge, either. So being honest means you get the right care, tailored to your body and circumstances.
3. If something isn't working for you, say so. Teenagers shouldn't hesitate to trust their intuition on the care they are getting. If something isn't working or you are uncomfortable with a recommendation, say so. If the doctor is not treating you with respect, tell your parents.
4. Consider the credibility of ads for products or treatments. Sports drinks, steroids, and supplements are heavily marketed to teenagers. Just because an ad says something is great doesn't mean it's been tested and is proven to work. "Follow the money," Torrey says. Think about who's profiting from the product, and what their motivation could be.
5. Learn how to read drug labels and consider a drug's side effects. Rely on trusted websites, including .gov sites, (the National Library of Medicine's Daily Med is a good one), peer-reviewed medical journals, and large sites that review the accuracy of medical content, like WebMD.
6. Write down questions in advance of a doctor visit. We all forget stuff when faced with an authority figure in a white coat. This advice is often recommended for adults, but it goes for teenagers, too.
"Until I had my own comeuppance with the system, it never occurred to me that I would ever have to take responsibility." Torrey says. Her new mantra: Trust, but verify. It's one that adults and teens alike can learn from.