As children grow older, in the blink of an eye they transition from play dates to parties and from carpools to driving. They also stop making regular visits to the doctor, and that change concerns some physicians. Many preteens and adolescents see their doctors only when they are sick or need school vaccinations or sports physicals. But that’s not often enough, according to Leonard Pittala, DO, and Eve Krahn, MD, pediatricians with Meritas Health Pediatrics. These physicians focus on preteens and teenagers, an underserved patient population faced with health and wellness issues including sexual activity, drug and alcohol use, depression, sleep deprivation and weight management.
Building Trusting Relationships
According to Dr. Pittala, studies show teens fall off the healthcare radar because they tend to be a healthy group. “We encourage teens to make a well-child appointment every year so that we can help manage their healthcare, monitor their growth and development, recommend vaccinations and screenings, and build a trusting relationship,” says Dr. Pittala, who adds that he and Dr. Krahn make it a priority to stay current on the ever-changing vaccination and screening requirements for adolescents, as it’s a huge part of preventive medicine. “If I only see a patient every two to four years during illness or a sports physical, the patient is less likely to talk with me when there is a healthcare need of a sexual or behavioral nature.”
Asking the Hard Questions
These physicians take the time necessary to have a thorough visit with their teen patients; appointments often take 30 minutes. They evaluate each patient’s psycho-social development during the visit. Dr. Krahn says, “We are trained to ask the right questions to get these kids to open up.” She talks with her patients about sexual activity and high-risk behaviors, including drug and alcohol abuse, depression, eating disorders, sleep habits and other lifestyle choices.
A study in Pediatric News found that one-third of visits with adolescent patients did not include a discussion about sexuality. In visits where the topic was mentioned, the conversation lasted an average of 36 seconds and included little patient input. “We estimate that 50% of teens are sexually active so we use a variety of tools including a questionnaire to help teens talk about their issues,” says Dr. Krahn. “We are nonjudgmental, frank and comfortable talking about the hard topics with our teenage patients.”
While many kids have issues with being overweight, Dr. Pittala sees just as many patients who are on the path to anorexia and bulimia. He says, “We want to identify and intervene before their behaviors become a pattern.” Meritas Health Pediatrics employs an onsite dietitian to provide nutrition education and weight management counseling for its adolescent patients. These sessions include meal planning as well as education about high cholesterol, diabetes and other lifestyle topics related to nutrition. The dietitian is on-site one day a week and appointments with her can be scheduled through the office.
Depression is also a concern for Drs. Pittala and Krahn. “I ask teens questions about suicide, depression, eating disorders, high-risk behaviors and lifestyle choices, such as sleep habits,” notes Dr. Krahn. “Nearly 20 percent of youth suffer from depression or anxiety, but less than 20% of those affected seek help,” explains Dr. Krahn. To further address the psycho-social needs of teen patients, Meritas Health Pediatrics offers on-site appointments with a psychologist from Madison Avenue Psychology. “We advocate for teens,” adds Dr. Pittala. “We are their safety net.”
Physicians at Meritas Health Pediatrics care for patients from infants through early 20s. They take many steps so teens feel comfortable, listened to and secure, including asking parents for approval to talk privately with adolescent patients.
Meritas Health Pediatrics is located at 2700 Clay Edwards Drive, Professional Building on NKCH campus. To make an appointment, call 816.421.4115.