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Doctor-teen privacy is good for youngsters, medical experts contend

One-on-one sessions allow for open talks about health issues

This photo shows Dr. Donald Brown holding the human papillomavirus vaccine Gardasil in his hand at his Chicago office. Dr. Meg Fisher says the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that girls get the human papillomavirus vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
This photo shows Dr. Donald Brown holding the human papillomavirus vaccine Gardasil in his hand at his Chicago office. Dr. Meg Fisher says the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that girls get the human papillomavirus vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Beth J. Harpaz Associated Press

If you’re the parent of a ’tween or teen, chances are you’ve been asked to leave the room during your child’s visit to the doctor so they can have a private chat. Now, of course, I believe that teenagers should have a trusting relationship with their doctors. But while I’m sitting there alone in the waiting room, I can’t help but wonder what my kids are telling the doctor behind that closed door.

See, I’m a nosy mom, and if something’s going on with my children’s health, I want to hear about it. I mean, if your kid was suicidal, or a heroin addict, and somehow you didn’t know it, would the doctor tell you?

Turns out the answer is yes.

“If we are concerned that someone is in danger, we are compelled to share that information,” said Dr. Joseph Hagan, who is part of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Bright Futures initiative to improve children’s health.

But Hagan emphasized that giving kids a chance to speak privately with doctors “is not about secrecy. It’s about autonomy. A 16-year-old should begin to ask his own questions about his health.”

In fact, if your pediatrician doesn’t ask you to leave the room during teen visits, maybe he or she should.

“The pediatrician should spend most of the office visit alone with the adolescent,” according to Dr. David Tayloe, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It’s very important for teenagers to have confidential conversations with their pediatricians.”

Tayloe said 75 percent of teenagers are sexually active by their senior year of high school. Hagan said he starts talking to kids about sexuality around age 12.

But he also tries to get patients and parents communicating: “If a girl is concerned about pregnancy, I might say, ‘What do you think your parents would say if you talked to them about this? Shall we tell them together?’ ”

Most teenagers have experimented with alcohol by the time they are high school seniors, Tayloe added.

“Pediatricians need to level with teens about alcohol,” he said, including the fact that underage drinking contributes to car accidents and unplanned pregnancies.

He also said that 20 percent of children have mental health problems, but only 20 percent of those kids are getting help.

Kids who are teenagers now may also have missed some of the newer vaccines that became available after their early childhood inoculations against diseases like polio, mumps and measles.

The AAP recommends that children 11 and older be vaccinated against meningitis, a disease that can spread in settings like sleepaway camps and college dormitories.

It also recommends that girls get the human papillomavirus vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer. And kids who were not inoculated against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis when they were little need a one-dose combination vaccine against those diseases.

Optional vaccines to consider for teens include flu shots; a second dose of the varicella vaccine against chicken pox, because the single dose many teens received when they were little may not be effective; and the hepatitis A vaccine.

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