Excerpts from Changing Bodies, Changing Lives
Chapter 8: Physical Health Care
One important way to take care of yourself is to have a yearly physical examination. Just the way you take your car in for a regular lube and oil change, you want to take yourself in for a checkup before anything really serious happens. A regular medical checkup is a form of preventive medicine; it helps prevent you from becoming seriously ill.
Where to Go for a Checkup
- Family doctor. Many of you will have a doctor you have been seeing since childhood. She or he will probably continue to serve you until you are sixteen or seventeen, if you do not change doctors. Many pediatricians these days have special training in teenage health.
- Health maintenance organizations. Many families belong to health insurance groups. Check with your parents.
- Local health clinics. You may prefer to go to a local clinic for medical services. Look in the business pages under Clinics, Health Services, Medical Services. Ask friends for recommendations. Check with your school nurse to see whether he or she can recommend a clinic.
- Women's clinics or women's health centers. These provide complete services for women and girls. If there is a women's clinic in your city or town, call them. Ask if they also provide treatment for males.
- Community clinics. Some areas have clinics that run solely on grants and donations. They do not charge anything for their services. If there is a free clinic in your area, that would be a good choice, since they are likely to treat many teenagers and they would therefore be set up to handle special teenage problems. Look in the business pages under Clinics.
Making an Appointment.
You may want to talk to the people at different places before you decide where to go for your checkup. Call them and ask them about the services. Tell them your age.
Here is a list of some questions you may want to ask:
- Do they treat many teenagers?
- How many doctors and nurse practitioners do they have on their staff?
- How long have they been in operation?
- Are they affiliated with any hospitals?
- What do they charge for a complete physical exam?
- Do you need your parents' consent to be seen by a doctor?
- If you are a girl and would prefer to be seen by a female doctor, ask if they have one on the staff. Many places do.
You'll be able to determine by their answers and their friendliness whether you want to go to that clinic. They should be courteous and respectful and answer your questions.
Make an appointment for a time that is convenient you. If there is a particular health practitioner you want to see, make your appointment for a time when that person is on duty. Once you make an appointment, be sure to keep it. If you cannot keep it for some reason, be sure to phone the clinic or doctor's office to cancel your appointment.
Ask for directions to the place. Ask if you can get there by public transportation if you need to.
We advise you to bring a parent or a friend along with you to the appointment. It's nice to have company while you're waiting for the health practitioner. If you prefer to go alone, you may want to bring a book or some homework. There is usually a fifteen- to forty-five-minute wait. At some clinics there is a much longer wait.
As a consumer of health care, you have certain rights, regardless of your race, religion, age, sex, or education. These are:
- The right to be treated with dignity and respect.
- The right to privacy and confidentiality.
- The right to have all procedures explained in language you understand.
- The right to have all your questions answered in language you understand.
- The right to know the meaning and implications of all forms you are asked to sign.
- The right to know the effectiveness, complications, and possible side effects of all medications you are given.
- The right to know the results and meanings of all tests and examinations.
- The right to consent to or refuse any test, examination, or treatment.
- The right to see your records and have them explained to you.
Medical professionals are human. They make mistakes. They may be very busy. They are not perfect. They can't read your mind. In order to get the best treatment possible, be sure to speak up when you don't understand something. Ask questions. Let them know if what they doing hurts you or makes you feel uncomfortable.
If you feel your rights have been violated, talk to the clinic director or to the health worker in charge of the office. If they aren't helpful, do not use their services in the future if you are able to go somewhere else. Tell your friends about your poor treatment. You and they may be able to get together and organize a list of good medical services in your area. You can boycott doctors and clinics that do not provide adequate services to teenagers.
If you have a serious complaint -- for example, if you were physically mistreated or you were lied to or misled, or if you suspect that you are, or ever have been, the subject of a medical experiment and have questions about it, or if you feel any of your rights have been violated -- you can contact your State Board of Medical Examiners for physician grievances or the State Board of Nursing for grievances against nurses. Their office will be listed in the phone book of your state capital (which you can find in the public library), or you can get their phone number from calling directory assistance for your state capital. Describe your mistreatment, and give them the name of the doctors and/or health workers who were at fault. Give them the name and the address of the place where you received treatment.
A Typical Medical Examination
Lots of people put off going for an examination because they are afraid of what it will be like. They worry about shots or other procedures that may hurt or be uncomfortable. Some people don't like the idea of getting undressed in the examining room. Here we will explain what to expect from a typical exam in order to take some of the strangeness out of it and to help you to feel more comfortable.
Complete Medical History
An important part of any thorough exam is the medical history. This is a series of questions about your present and past health, and the health of members of your family. You will be asked what diseases you had as a child; what illnesses close members of your family have had; what, if any, special medical conditions you may have, such as diabetes, heart murmur, fainting spells, headaches.; and what kinds of illnesses run in your family, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes. They will ask you if you have any allergies and whether you are allergic to any form of medication or whether you take any medication or drugs regularly.
Remember, according to the medical code of ethics and in some cases according to the law, the health professional must keep this information confidential, unless it is about sexual or physical abuse. Medical people are required by law to report suspected sexual or physical abuse cases to the appropriate authorities.
In many clinics and doctor's offices, a trained medical professional will ask you about your medical history. In other places, there will be a form for you to fill out. This will be a checklist naming various diseases and asking you to check which you've had and which you haven't had. Answer only those questions you understand and know the answer to. If you bring a parent along with you to the exam, he or she will be able to help you, especially with questions about your past health and the health of other members of the family.
If you have trouble reading the form or if you don't know what some words mean, don't fill out that part. Talk to the health worker and ask for an explanation of any part you don't understand. If the whole form is confusing to you, ask for help. You have a right and an obligation to yourself to have everything explained to you so you know what you are filling in.
Time to Talk to the Health Professional
The examination should include as much time as you and the health professional need to discuss any problems or concerns you have about your development, your life, your feelings. Bring along a list of questions so you won't forget what you wanted to talk about. This time should be private so that you can discuss things you might not want to talk about with someone else present. If a parent comes with you to the exam, ask for private time to speak with the health professional alone. Many medical people are sensitive to the fact that teens may want some time to ask questions or discuss private issues without a parent present.
The health professional should discuss with you the process of physical development and explain to you why and how your body is changing. He or she may discuss diet and health habits with you. Some medical people prescribe vitamins; others believe that if you are eating well, you don't need vitamins. That is still a controversial subject in medical circles. We feel free to ask your health professional to explain his or her approach to the prevention of illness.
One important part of the talk will be about sexuality. Since your body is becoming mature sexually and you are going to be or are already capable of reproduction, the health professional should take this time to discuss birth control and sexually transmitted diseases with you -- even if you have no intention of being sexually active with a partner for a long while. It's essential to know about birth control and STD prevention before you become sexually active. If he or she doesn't bring these topics up, you should ask him or her any questions you may have about sex. If the health professional hedges, or seems embarrassed to talk with you about these things, you may choose to find another health practitioner for future checkups. Find a medical person with whom you feel comfortable discussing sex. For some teenagers, this person is their only reliable source of accurate sex information.
Be honest with the health professional about whether or not you are sexually active and what kinds of sexual activity you have experienced. It's for your own protection, because if you are having intercourse or oral sex, you should have STD tests during the exam (see Chapter 9). Also, girls who are sexually active should have Pap smears (explained page 251).
If you are having problems with drugs and/or alcohol and you want help, the health professional would be a good person to ask for assistance. You will have to decide whether you trust her or him enough to share your problem. Since the first step to ending substance abuse is admitting you have a problem, telling the health professional will be a positive move toward recovery.
If you are experiencing panic attacks, frequent headaches or stomach aches, an inability to concentrate school, problems with family members, or any kind of abuse, tell the health professional about it. Keeping these serious problems secret allows them to continue. Though you may feel funny discussing such intimate things with a stranger, sometimes it's actually easier talking to someone you don't know very well. Think of the health professional as an important resource person. Even if your concerns aren't medical, he or she will be able to put you in touch with other people who can help you.