When Governor Tom Wolf designated the last week in January as the state’s first ever Teen Health week, the staff at Penn’s Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine practice in Radnor, Pa., seized the opportunity to spotlight many of the unique health issues their patients and the other two million teenagers residing in the Commonwealth and beyond can face all year.
“Adolescents are particularly vulnerable emotionally and physically,” said Janice Hillman, MD, a physician at the practice. “They are taking risks and making decisions based on what they hear from social media and friends. Risk taking and accidents are the number one cause of death in teens – we need to educate and guide them to making healthy choices.”
The practice marked the occasion with a week of daily activities around the most prevalent health issues: nutrition and eating disorders, cyber bullying and mental health, sexual health, suicide prevention and exercise.
The group promoted one of these each day, educating medical providers on tips, trends, and helpful information to share in their conversations with patients.
Dedicated exclusively to adolescents and young adults, the practice is a resource for those seeking a greater depth of expertise than what is offered by many general family practices. New patients join the practice as young as 11 years old up to age 30, and current patients can stay with the practice to age 40.
The practice understands the needs of those they serve and continually adapts to health trends seen in their patients. For example, experiencing an increase in mental health patients led to bringing a therapist on-site to help patients manage issues like depression and suicidal thoughts. Suicide is the third highest cause of death in teens ages 10-24, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some of these new trends are influenced by technology – such as cyber bullying, which 43 percent of 13 to 17 year olds reported experiencing in the previous year, according to a 2007 Harris Interactive Poll by the National Crime Prevention Council. Technology can influence new teen drivers as well, many of whom engage in risky decisions, such as texting while behind the wheel. In 2013, 2,163 U.S. teens ages 16–19 were killed and 243,243 were treated in emergency departments for injuries from motor vehicle crashes, according to the CDC. The CDC also adds that less use of seatbelts, drinking and driving, and other poor decisions put some adolescents at heightened risk.
“Our providers see those live, real-time issues that teens and young adolescents are going through,” practice manager Carmen Harvey said. “Fortunately, patients are typically pretty upfront with their care providers about what they’re facing.”
Harvey says the practice is especially popular during the summer, as patients receive necessary vaccinations and sports physicals in preparation for going back to school, but their work is no less critical during any other season.
“Teen Health Week is also a good reminder that, beyond our routine seasonal roles, we share a year-round commitment to ensure our patients know they’re welcomed,” Harvey added. “We treat patients as they are—it’s just what we do. There’s no second question about it.”
While this primary care practice cares for patients ranging from those experiencing a wide variety of conditions, to those there for a vaccination or routine well visit, the week’s awareness campaign also helped emphasize common issues the practice specializes in that could be helpful to a patient later.
For example, physicians can play a valuable role in instilling the importance of maintaining healthy habits for teenage patients moving off to college and transitioning to greater independence and responsibility in their young adult years.
Those valuable conversations, as well as those about other issues unique to a particular patient, occur whether or not it is a Teen Health Week. This state-wide campaign allowed everyone to reflect on what is at stake.
“PA Teen Health Week reminds Pennsylvanians that our teens are vital to the state, that our teens are one of the best investment Pennsylvanians can make to the health and safety of our state, that our teens represent the future of Pennsylvania,” Hillman said. “We can truly save lives by these prevention and educational efforts.”
PA Teen Health Week is a collaborative effort by the Pennsylvania Governor’s office, Pennsylvania Department of Health, Philadelphia College of Physicians, Delaware County physician Laura Offutt, MD, Herbert Hazan, FCPP, former director of student and employee health of the School District of Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Medical Society.