Like learning to drive or managing finances, figuring out health care is part of becoming an independent adult. Here are some tips on what that involves — and why it matters.
Why It's Important
If you're like most teens, you've left your health care up to your parents. After all, they care about your health as much as you do. But nobody knows more about your body than you: You live in it and you're the one who knows when something doesn't feel right.
Taking charge of your health care lets you make choices that affect you every day. It also prepares you for the time when you'll be the one buying health insurance or making decisions for your own kids.
What to Know
Chances are, you already know quite a bit about your health. Most of us have missed school because of a virus, taken some sort of medicine, or dealt with a sports injury at some point.
But even people who have a lot of experience with doctors or hospitals have gaps in their knowledge when it comes to the medical system. If you have a health condition like diabetes or asthma, you may know some things well (like when to take your medicine), but less about others (like the medicine name or how to fill a prescription).
Now's the time to fill in those blanks. Here's how.
Start by finding out your basic medical information. Knowing this will help in an emergency. Ask your mom, dad, or whoever keeps your health information to give you these five things:
- The name, address, and phone number of your doctor(s).
- The details on medicines you take. If you don't know why you take that little green pill every morning, now is the time to find out.
- Your personal medical history . Know what vaccinations you've had, whether you had any major medical problems, and the details of any operations or hospital treatments.
- Your family medical history. Ask family members if diseases like cancer or diabetes run in the family.
- Any allergies you may have.
Some of this information — like your doctor's contact details, allergies, or medicines — should be loaded in your phone. Keep other information, like medical history, in a safe, private place, like on a password-protected thumb drive.
What to Do
Start Making Your Own Decisions
The more you learn about health care, the smarter your decisions will be — and the more comfortable your parents might feel with having you make them.
Choosing your own doctor is one of the most important decisions you can make. Lots of people prefer to stay with their childhood doctor during the teen years (if your doctor is a pediatrician, you'll have to switch eventually). Other people decide their teens are a good time to switch to a family doctor, adolescent medicine specialist, or internist.
Your doctor should be someone you feel comfortable talking to about anything—body image, dating, relationships, peer pressure to drink or do drugs, school problems, or depression. Know what's important to you, like having a doctor who asks good questions, or is young or the same gender as you. Take all the time you need to find the right doctor. If you have to switch a couple of times, that's OK
Include your parents as you make your decisions. They've managed your health care until now, and they'll probably want to have a "hand-off" period. They may want you to stay with a particular doctor — if you have brothers and sisters, it might be easiest to have everyone in the same medical practice. But there are still ways to make some of your own decisions.
Here are some things you can start doing around age 14:
- Make your own medical appointments. Allergies acting up? Time for your sports physical? Tell your mom or dad that you want to be the one who calls to make the appointment. If it helps, ask your mom or dad to sit with you as you make your first call, or get a checklist of the things you need to say.
- Call in any prescription refills and pick them up at the pharmacy. You can now download apps that let you refill your prescription without making a phone call.
- Keep your own personal health records.
- Schedule alone time at each doctor's visit. This lets you build your own working relationship with your doctor.
Here's what to do by the time you leave high school:
- Have copies of your medical records — or know where to get them (for example, school or your doctor's office).
- Know your health insurance company and who to contact there.
- Understand the basics of health insurance coverage and how to get it if you're no longer on a parent's plan.
- Know how to get referrals to specialists, if needed.
- If you have a chronic medical condition or special health care need, contact your local Social Security office to apply for benefits after you turn 18.
As you take an active role in managing your health care, ask your parents for help. Even if you're pretty sure you know the answer to something, asking for help is a good way to reassure your mom or dad that you're responsible and will ask questions if needed.
Insurance plans can be complicated and change often. Involving your parents can help you be sure that doctors accept your health insurance so you're not left responsible for the whole bill.
Take Good Care of Yourself
Perhaps the best, and easiest, way to take charge of your own health care is to start by taking care of yourself. To do this at any age:
- Stay at a healthy weight.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods (like whole grains).
- Get enough sleep.
- Exercise regularly.
- Help your body grow and be its best by not smoking, drinking alcohol, or doing drugs.
- If you take medicine, follow the directions. Avoid missing doses by programming reminders into your phone or taking medicines at the same time you do another daily routine, like brushing your teeth. When your doctor gives you a prescription, ask what to do if you forget to take a dose.
- If you have an illness like diabetes or asthma, ask your mom, dad, or doctor for small steps you can do to manage your own treatment.
It's easy to let your parents call the shots, but taking responsibility for your health is a great way to learn critical lifelong skills and demonstrate your independence. It is the best headstart you can give yourself on the road to lifelong wellness.