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Getting Schooled in Healthy Habits

Jennifer Michener Well before signs of fall kick in — cooler weather, fewer daylight hours, and pumpkin spice in everything — many kids and young adults feel an abrupt halt to the comforts of summer as they return to school.

For clinicians at Penn Adolescent & Young Adult Medicine, they are particularly busy this time of year, preparing youth in the Philadelphia region for the year ahead. They provide required vaccinations, sports physicals, and other standard duties typically performed by pediatricians and family medicine staff, but during summer and fall well-visit appointments, they also cover a lot more with a depth of expertise rarely afforded by other medical environments.

For example, physicians at the Radnor practice employ findings from the latest research — such as how sleep affects a student's performance during waking hours — and adolescent trends, like coaching patients about cyber bullying, to delve into a range of concerns patients may experience.

I checked in with Jennifer Michener, MD, a physician at the practice, to learn about issues she sees most often in her patients and what makes the medical team there such an important resource to young women and men ages 12 to 30.

Q: I imagine this is a busy time of the year for the practice. Especially considering some patients will be moving away to college, what kinds of things are patients looking for when they come in around this time?

A: I spend a lot of time talking about stress management during this time of year. The transition back to school is exciting, but also a very stressful time for most adolescents, especially with the academic and peer pressures they anticipate. We are also seeing many of our patients off to college, whether for the first time, or as returning students. With college freshmen in particular, we spend a lot of time discussing the various new responsibilities and challenges that come with being away at college including emotional health and wellness, time management, essential health screenings, navigating the school's student health, alcohol and drug counseling, nutrition, and sexual health. We have dedicated time in their well visit to discuss these issues, hoping to give them the guidance and tools they need to successfully navigate some of these new challenges.

Q: We're seeing an increasing focus on the importance of quality sleep for overall health and academic performance. Do you coach your patients as they transition away from a summer schedule to the fall and reaffirm the importance of making sleep a priority?

A: Absolutely. As you mentioned, there is a lot of emerging research that focuses on the importance of earlier bedtimes and adequate sleep for adolescents (about nine hours per night) to help with school performance and emotional well-being. We screen all of our patients for their sleep habits at annual visits and counsel on appropriate sleep hygiene techniques. This is especially important during this time of year since many adolescents and young adults have different sleep patterns during the summer, but are still able to get the recommended nine hours by sleeping in. Later bedtimes during the school year usually result in overall decreased sleep, while during the summer this is not necessarily true.

Q: Years ago, news stories focused on back pain from heavy backpacks. What are some issues that are especially prominent now in your patients?

A: We still see a good deal of back pain and shoulder pain from heavy backpacks. I think we all just screen and counsel patients presenting with either back or shoulder pain on the proper backpack wearing techniques and alternatives to wearing traditional backpacks. When children and adolescents are wearing backpacks they should have wide straps, be adjusted so the straps are even and worn as close to the body as possible, have a padded back and straps, and should be arranged so the heaviest items are in the middle and at the bottom. Additionally, they should be packed as lightly as possible, removing all unnecessary items. Rolling bags or cross body messenger bags can be an alternative that works better for some people.

Q: A healthy diet, exercise, sleeping well — a lot of these tips are helpful at any age. Why is it especially important for adolescents?

A: It is especially important for adolescents because their minds and bodies are still actively developing. Adolescence is a time of life with an immense amount of intellectual, physical, and emotional growth and development. Exercising, healthy diets, and good sleep help promote physical and emotional health during this time of change. Additionally, it is important for them to develop good habits early in their lives that will carry them into adulthood.

Q: What makes your practice a unique resource for adolescents and young adults in the region?

A: Our practice is focused on the physical and emotional health of children and adolescents as they transition into adulthood. All of the practitioners and staff here are committed to learning about and working with the unique needs of this group, making the practice a safe haven for them during this challenging time of development. The practitioners are all experts on health issues that commonly affect this age group. We work closely with other community members, organizations, and local mental health services to deliver comprehensive services to our patients, including a unique relationship with Springfield Psychological who comes to see patients in our office once per week. Additionally, we prioritize and standardize screening and counseling as part of our yearly well visits, something that is often not focused on in other adult or pediatric practices.


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