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Pennsylvania Teen Health Week Offers Opportunity to Create Life-Long Habits


By Laura Offutt, MD

Note: Guest blogger Laura Offutt, MD, is a volunteer internal medicine physician who lives in Delaware County and a PAMED member. When not seeing patients, she uses social media and her blog-based website to engage adolescents with teen-friendly, accurate health information.  Dr. Offutt is a member of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, the American College of Physicians and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Gov. Wolf has proclaimed Jan. 25-29 the first ever Pennsylvania Teen Health Week, a week focused specifically on the important topic of holistic health in teenagers. Pennsylvania will be the first state to have such a state-wide proclamation and observance to the best of my knowledge. 

Why am I, an internist, so interested in the health of teens? All internists can agree that it is not uncommon for a health issue presenting in adulthood to originate from a health decision made in adolescence. 

Teen years are a time of rapid physical and emotional growth. Health behavior patterns established during adolescence both affect the individual's current and future health, and have the potential to lay the foundation, either positively or negatively, for adult health. Thus it stands to reason that promoting healthy behavior in teens promotes a healthy population in general.

More than 7 percent of people in Pennsylvania (or 1.7 million) are adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19. Fewer than half of Pennsylvania high school students report getting the recommended amount of daily physical activity, 20 percent had at least one chronic health condition, and 13 percent report seriously considering a suicide attempt. 

Encouraging teens to question, learn, and engage with accurate health information helps adolescents develop the necessary skills to advocate for their own health. Pennsylvania Teen Health Week has been established to help teens build these skills in collaboration with the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and with the support of the Pennsylvania Medical Society.

Currently my main professional area of interest is reaching teens with accurate health information online. Nearly 100 percent of teens go to the Internet with health questions of some sort, and by the age of 16, more teens go online in search of health information than to the adults in their lives. 

Teaching teens how to assess the credibility and bias of online health resources is a critical part of teaching them health literacy. To that end, I believe that physicians and other health care providers can use social media as a powerful tool with which to spread accurate health information amongst this segment of our population.

Without professionals doing so, there is a medical social media void that is in danger of being filled with uninformed voices promoting agendas at odds with patient health.

It is often described that the adolescent brain develops reward pathways faster than it develops pathways responsible for planning and emotional control, but often what is less discussed is the remarkable capacity for the adolescent brain to adapt.

Thus it is recognized that exploring and experimentation are normal activities during teen years; but one should also consider that questioning, learning, and engaging with accurate health information will help adolescents develop the necessary skills to advocate for their own health.

Since adolescents often are agents of change, including them in discussions and really listening to what they have to say about improving adolescent health behaviors is critical.  This is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my work.

What I love most about the upcoming Pennsylvania Teen Health Week, is that the idea was discussed over the summer with a group of students who were selected to be teen advisors to Real Talk with Dr. Offutt. During these discussions, one student suggested that we try to obtain statewide support with a formal Proclamation.

I am so pleased that these teens can see that their good ideas have a positive impact! 

Physicians who wish to become involved can do so easily. Involvement can be as simple as hanging a flyer announcing the week in the office or wearing lime green, the official color of Teen Health Week.  These and numerous other simple ideas can be found here: http://goo.gl/KQZMBX .

Those of us involved in developing this important week are excited to see Pennsylvania taking the lead, and hope this initiative can take hold nationally.

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