Two of 3 American teenagers care about their health and being healthy, yet 60% have reasons for not getting annual checkups, and one third think they only need to see their physician when sick. These are some of the key findings in a survey released April 16 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
“The teen years are a critical time in health, [with] habit development [and] physical and brain development, as well as emergence of some chronic diseases. There’s evidence that having preventive healthcare visits [in the teen years] can make a difference,” said Leslie Walker, MD, chief of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital in Washington and immediate past-president of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, who participated in the briefing.
However, health officials estimate that roughly one third of American teenagers do not get annual checkups, missing out on the opportunity to be screened for health risks during a period of risk-taking.
Prevention is a “leading tool” in healthcare, Susan Rehm, MD, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said at the briefing. In a teenager, it “lays a strong foundation for their healthcare as an adult. Teens are our future; we need them to be healthy adults.”
To better understand perceptions about teenager health and how to improve it, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, in collaboration with and support from Pfizer Inc, conducted a national online survey of 504 teenagers aged 13 to 17 years and 500 parents of teenagers aged 13 to 17 years, as well as 1325 healthcare professionals, including pediatricians, primary care physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, involved in adolescent healthcare. The survey was conducted between December 27, 2012, and January 23, 2013, with the help of Harris Interactive.
Checkups Not on To Do List
The survey showed that 1 in 5 teenagers believe that their choices today will not have a big effect on their health in the future.
This means that “80% do see the connection between what they are doing and their long-term health, so half the battle is done, we have the vast majority of teens on our side right now,” commented Aria Finger, chief operating officer of DoSomething.org, a nonprofit organization with the goal of motivating young people to take action for positive social change.
Paths to health cited by the teenagers include exercise (84%), maintaining a healthy weight (80%), eating a healthy diet (75%), emotional well-being (75%), and good sleep habits (70%).
However, annual physical exams for teenagers, which are recommended by many professional societies, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Society for Adolescent Medicine, are not high on teenagers’ or parents’ to do lists.
For example, although 85% of parents surveyed said annual checkups were important before age 5 years, there was a 24% drop in the percentage who believed the same is true for teenagers (61%).
Health providers surveyed agreed that annual checkups for teenagers can offer an important opportunity for discussions and reported that teenagers are more likely to bring up health topics important to them during annual checkups rather than during sick visits, but only with assurance of privacy and confidentiality.
“Many teens will not access needed medical care if they do not have the option of privacy or confidentiality at every visit,” Dr. Walker said. Eighty-four percent of physicians surveyed said teenagers are less apt to open up when a parent is in the exam room.
“Not surprisingly, having a parent in the room impedes discussions,” Dr. Rehm said.
The survey also showed that although 50% of teenagers turn to the Internet for health information, “the majority of them don’t trust that information,” Dr. Walker noted. “The trusted sources were parents and medical providers, highlighting the importance of a teen developing a relationship with a medical provider.”
“This survey is important because it includes the youth voice,” Finger said.