The transition from late teens to early adulthood is rife with challenges, transformations, and new experiences. It’s a time when adolescents leave behind the comforts of childhood and begin embracing the freedom and responsibility of being an adult. From going away to college and choosing a career path to handling finances and living away from home, it’s all a bit overwhelming. And navigating healthcare adds yet another layer of complexity to this life phase.
As a physician, you know smoothly transitioning pediatric patients to adult care is essential to a lifetime of good habits and a commitment to wellness. Without support and guidance from healthcare leaders, it’s easy for young adults to put their healthcare on the back burner — especially as their life becomes filled with other obligations. According to the US Census Bureau, 37 percent of young adults between 18 - 24 don’t see a doctor at all during the year.
To prevent young people from falling through the cracks, here are a few ways you can help streamline the transition from pediatrics to adult healthcare.
Start the Conversation Early
Like most pediatricians, your practice likely stops seeing patients between ages 18 - 21. But you should begin discussing the transition much earlier than that.
Once a child reaches high school age, they should begin taking responsibility for their health. Depending on the patient, this might mean understanding more about their chronic condition, should they have one, any allergies or food sensitivities they’ll need to manage, medications they’re prescribed and how they work, and family medical history to keep in mind. As they get older, it’s also helpful for them to learn how to schedule their own appointments and where to go (or who to call) in the case of an emergency.
This way, by the time they’re legally an adult, they’ll feel comfortable in a more adult healthcare environment. Also, the more they know about themselves and their health, the better they’ll manage it when they’re on their own.
Develop a Step-by-Step Plan
Transitioning pediatric patients to adult care is about more than providing a referral and waving goodbye. To set your patients up for success, you should devise a multi-point strategy.
Your plan should include:
- Conversations to have with the parent and the soon-to-be adult
- A thorough transfer letter to the new physician
- Completion of legal documents related to the transition (ex. Authorization to transfer records)
- A patient assessment or Q&A to help you identify where a patient may need more support as their time with you comes to a close
Creating a solid plan (with an accompanying timeline) helps you make sure you’re covering all the bases and simplifies the experience for everyone involved.
Keep in Touch with Transitioning Patients
Set a reminder to check in with patients who are transitioning to adult care, even if they’ve already officially moved on. A well-timed message from their former trusted childhood doctor can be the impetus a young adult patient needs to schedule an annual exam or reach out to a new doctor about adjusting a medication. It’s also a good idea to reach out to the former patient’s parent or guardian too as they may be more apt to respond or keep you updated on the patient’s status.
Try to check in with former patients at six months and one year after they transition to their new care provider. While some patients may not respond, a gentle nudge (and the reminder that healthcare professionals care) can do more than you might expect.
Create a Safe Space for Questions
One of the best things you can do when transitioning pediatric patients to adult care is to model the sort of relationship patients should expect with their adult care provider — and that means ensuring they feel comfortable being candid. At a certain point, it’s a good idea to begin meeting with your patient without their parent in the room. In addition to ensuring they feel free to ask questions about difficult topics like sexual health, it’s also important they learn to advocate for themselves and share their concerns or symptoms without their (well-meaning) parent jumping in on their behalf.
The hope is, by trusting you, they’ll also learn to trust their next doctor and share all the information that could be pertinent to their care.
As a pediatrician, your goal isn’t just to care for patients through adulthood — it’s to ensure they’re prepared for success as an adult, too. By making an effort to support their transition to adult care, you’ll help them thrive in the next phase of life (and lay a foundation for future life changes too).