Tread carefully when discussing sensitive topics with teens

If there's anything that is sacrosanct to teens and adolescents, it's their privacy, even when it comes to sharing important medical information with their doctors.

As a result, pressing young adults to reveal sensitive information too hard or too early in the physician-patient relationship could backfire on doctors, researchers from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center reported in a study published in this week's Pediatrics.

"If the information isn't urgent, such as a routine health visit, providers may be better off waiting to ask sensitive questions until they know the teen better and can get better information once they've established trust," said lead author and adolescent medicine physician Dr. Maria Britto in a hospital news release.

When questions can't wait, it's important for providers to ask teens' permission to discuss sensitive issues and explain why it's important to ask personal questions and asking permission to discuss sensitive issues, Britto said. In addition, teens prefer increased privacy during physical exams.

Other findings from the 12 focus groups of 54 teenagers participating in the study included:

  • Younger teens were more likely to want parental involvement in their healthcare, while their older counterparts said they might avoid going to the doctor if they thought information would be shared with their parents.
  • Teens of all ages said they would not discuss sensitive topics with clinicians if they thought the provider would judge them or "jump to conclusions."
  • Younger teens said they did not have personal discussions with providers they didn't know or like, or if they believed the provider did not need to know the information.
  • Only younger adolescents said they had concerns about violations of physical privacy.
  • Kids with chronic illnesses better understood and accepted the need to share information with healthcare providers.

To learn more:
- read this Hi-Wire piece from HealthDay
- see the study in Pediatrics