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Young woman doctor explaining diagnosis to teenage girl in her ambulance office.
August 22, 2023

Back-to-School Series: Empowering Teens in Health Care

ThedaCare Pediatrician Recommends Nurturing Decision-Making to Advocate for their Well-being

As families are preparing for another school year, ThedaCare is helping with a back-to-school series. The series will feature topics that can help students gear up for a healthy and successful year. In this article, Abby Smolcich, M.D., a pediatrician at ThedaCare Physicians-Darboy, will provide recommendations for families to help empower teens to be involved with their health care decisions.

Navigating the complexities of health care is a vital aspect of adolescent and young adult development. On the heels of the recent medical ethics policy adopted by the American Medical Association (AMA), which emphasizes the importance of health care providers respecting the autonomy of adolescents in decision-making while collaborating with parents, ThedaCare pediatricians are encouraging families to engage in this part of the health care journey.

With the independence of teens and young adults, doctors say it is crucial for them to be actively involved in their health care choices and learn the skills needed in doing so. In addition to family support, proxy access, responsible independence, and privacy considerations are all critical components of enabling young individuals to make informed decisions about their health.

“By empowering young individuals with the necessary information and tools, we can ensure they receive the care they need while nurturing their ability to take responsibility for their health and well-being as they mature,” said Dr. Smolcich. “By nurturing a child’s independence and equipping them with the necessary skills, we can ensure that the next generation is prepared to make informed health care choices and lead healthy lives.”

Proxy Access: Enabling Collaborative Decision-Making

Proxy access grants parents or guardians access to their child’s medical records. With proxy access, families can ensure continuity of care, promote communication between parents and teens, and foster shared decision-making. Encouraging open and honest conversations about medical concerns, treatment options, and long-term planning helps teens develop critical-thinking skills and take ownership of their well-being.

“By remaining involved, families can offer guidance, share important medical history, and provide emotional support during critical health care decisions,” Dr. Smolcich noted. “This collaboration also can build trust and allow for a holistic understanding of the teen’s health needs.”

Responsible Independence: Increasing Responsibility Gradually

As teenagers mature, doctors say it is important to gradually grant them more responsibility for their health care decisions. This progressive transition allows them to develop self-advocacy skills and become well-equipped to manage their health as they transition into adulthood.

“The decision to provide more responsibility should be based on individual readiness and a comprehensive assessment of their capabilities,” said Dr. Smolcich.

By slowly increasing responsibility, young adults develop confidence and learn important skills such as understanding their health conditions (around age 12), asking and answering questions during medical visits (around age 14), and choosing a primary care physician and keeping track of appointments (around age 17).

“This active engagement develops a sense of ownership in their health and encourages them to become proactive participants in their care,” she said. “It is also important to find the balance between empowering teens and ensuring their safety. Families should consider a teen’s maturity and ability to handle different tasks, which will enable teenagers to build confidence while still having a safety net.”

In compliance with state and federal laws and regulations, child proxy access for reviewing medical records online is limited for children between ages 12 and 18. To request proxy access, login to MyThedaCare . From the main menu, scroll to Account Settings and select “Request Proxy Access to a Minor.

Privacy Considerations: Respecting Autonomy

Privacy is an essential component of adolescent development. Respecting their need for privacy during health care encounters demonstrates trust and promotes open communication between young adults and their health care providers. It allows them the freedom to discuss personal concerns, ask questions, and seek guidance without the fear of judgment or unnecessary involvement from their parents.

“Respecting privacy is not about exclusion; it’s about creating an environment where young individuals feel comfortable discussing sensitive topics and building a strong patient-doctor relationship,” Dr. Smolcich emphasized. “It encourages them to actively seek health care information and engage in open dialogue.”

Special Health Needs: Providing Extra Support

Teens with chronic conditions or special health needs face unique circumstances when it comes to managing their health care. They require additional support as they navigate through the complexities of their conditions. Parents, health care providers, and educators play a crucial role in equipping them with the necessary knowledge and skills to make informed choices.

“For teens with special health needs, it’s important to provide them with age-appropriate education about their conditions,” Dr Smolcich said. “This includes understanding their symptoms, treatment options, and the importance of regular appointments.”

About ThedaCare

For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 17 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including eight hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique, best lives. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts about a patient’s care. ThedaCare is proud to partner with Children’s Wisconsin and Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network to enhance convenient access to the most advanced levels of specialty care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.