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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Teenagers are more likely to discuss topics like sexual health and drug use with their doctors if their parents are out of the room for at least part of their check-up, a new study shows.
Researchers found the greatest number of health-related topics were discussed when parents were present for some of the visit but outside the room for the rest.
“The study shows that parents are important. It’s really important for them to be there to foster conversation with a doctor,” said study author Matthew Aalsma, of Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.
“But it’s also important for adolescents to have alone time with the doctor. We have to recognize that adolescents have their own life, and we have to talk to them alone to make sure they’re doing well,” he told Reuters Health.
Aalsma, a child psychologist, and his team analyzed data from online surveys that the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and Pfizer collected to better understand adolescent health issues.
The surveys asked 504 teens ages 13 to 17 and their parents whether the adolescents’ last visit to the doctor included confidential conversations and which topics were discussed.
Teens and their doctors tended to discuss the greatest number of topics when parents were present for only part of the visit and the fewest number of topics when parents were present for the entire visit, the authors write in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
The teenagers were more likely to talk about smoking, drugs and alcohol, sexual health, self-image, stress, issues at school and mental health when they were able to speak with their doctors alone for at least part of the visit.
Nearly half of the teens whose parents were outside the room for the entire visit reported that the conversation would have been different had their parents been in the room, the study found.
“No one’s saying all parents are evil,” sociologist Laura Lindberg told Reuters Health. “It’s just that teens need some time alone to speak to their doctors about the issues that are private to them.”
“It has a real-world impact on the discussion of health issues across a range of topics,” she said.
Lindberg, a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute in New York, focuses on adolescent health but was not involved with the current study.
Prior studies have established that adolescents are more likely to seek care, disclose sensitive health information and return for future care when doctors assure them of confidentiality, the authors of the current study write. The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine all recommend that practitioners provide confidential health services for teens.
In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement saying doctors should ask adolescents about their drug and alcohol use at every visit and screen for signs of dependence and addiction (see Reuters Health story of October 31, 2011 here: reut.rs/1mEZcZa).
By the time children turn 12 or 13, pediatricians should begin partially confidential office visits, Aalsma said.
“It really needs to be a discussion that the pediatrician has with the parent, not just to kick them out,” he said.
“If the doctor does a really good job of setting the stage, a good number of adolescents are really open and honest about a good number of topics,” he said.
Doctors can then seize the opportunity to counsel youth about, for example, the dangers of binge drinking or driving while intoxicated.
Lindberg, the mother of four children between the ages of 13 and 22, said she welcomes the opportunity for her kids to speak privately with their doctor.
“As a parent,” she said, “I want my teens to have an educated, caring professional to talk to who they can talk to without me.”
SOURCE: bit.ly/1ploO08 Journal of Adolescent Health, online July 17, 2014.