Written by Kitty O’Hare, MD, coordinator of Transition Medicine at Martha Eliot Health Center
It’s late summer and the back-to-school sales dominate the stores. In my office there is a sudden flurry of activity from students hurrying to get sports physicals and vaccines before heading off to college. Everyone is nervous about their new roommates, their class schedules and whether they will be homesick. But for some of my patients, going to college is especially nerve-wracking because it will be their first time living away from home with a chronic disease.
I deal with teen health daily. I care for a lot of adolescents and young adults with chronic disease, everything from asthma to diabetes to congenital heart defects. As my patients grow up they have a lot to deal with because of medical issues: taking medicine, extra doctors’ appointments, extra vaccinations, missing school (or fun stuff). Most of them have help and support from their family and friends. And they know that their primary care doctor (me) is available to support them. But when they leave for college their support network stays at home, and that can be scary. Sometimes they even have to change primary care doctors. They have to think about how their choices in college affect their health, like if they start smoking with friends at parties, will their asthma get worse? As pediatricians, we try to prepare our patients far in advance for the transition to this first stage of adulthood. Here are the top 10 teen health tips in regards to transitioning care:
1) Know some basics about your disease. Read about it on the internet – WebMD or Children’s Hospital Boston’s website is a good place to start. Be able to give its proper name and some basic information about the disease. Ask your family how you got diagnosed with this disease. When you see your doctor, ask lots of questions. And be honest about if you’re having sex, if you’re drinking or using drugs. We will not judge you.
2) Know what medicines you take and why you take them. Know how to get refills when the medicines run out.
3) Know if you are allergic to anything (and exactly what happens to you when you take it.)
4) Ask your doctor for a written summary of your health conditions. Ideally this should be a one-page, easy-to-read typed document that you can carry with you. Having an electronic version is also a good idea–keep it on a flash drive for easy transport.
5) Talk to your pediatrician about when you should start seeing an adult doctor. If it’s time, ask for the names of some good ones—and call for a new patient appointment early as there can sometimes be a wait for appointments. Do this for your primary care doctor and for all of your specialists.
6) Exercise, exercise, exercise. Exercise one of the most important things anyone can do for their health.
7) As tempting as it is to survive on pizza and beer every day, try to eat a balanced diet. When you need a snack, grab a piece of fruit and drink low-fat milk. If you have a disease where diet is really important, like diabetes, take time out for regular meals.
8) Get plenty of sleep (at least 7 hours every night) and try to stick to a regular sleep schedule.
9) When you get to campus, make an appointment with student health just to get acquainted. Ask them about campus resources for students with chronic disease.
10) Be prepared for emergencies. Let your roommate, friends, and resident advisor know who to call if you get sick. If you have a serious disease, think about wearing a medical alert bracelet.
Heading off to college is really exciting, but like all life transitions, it can be scary. The best way to deal with that fear is to be as prepared as possible. By making sure you have the right tools and have done enough planning for your healthcare, you’re putting your best foot forward towards a healthy adult life. As I tell my patients, you are the expert about your health and your body. As you achieve new levels of independence in your personal life, the same should be said for managing your healthcare. College is a place where many of us form habits that we keep for life. By making a conscious effort to take control of your health in this transitional time you are not only making a strong commitment to your current teen health, but to your future health as well.