By Nancy Peters, MD
While it may be a bittersweet decision, your “baby” will someday need to switch from seeing a pediatrician to seeing a family medicine or internal medicine physician. But when is the right time to make that change? Here are some things to think about if you are wondering whether your child is getting too old for a pediatrician.
Every child’s development is different, so the decision to switch will be a personal one that should be made between you, your child and his or her current physician. In general, your child can be cared for by a pediatrician until about age 21. At this point, the pediatrician will likely recommend a new primary care provider, such as a family medicine or internal medicine physician. However, it’s important to note that the American Academy of Pediatrics says that this decision should be based less on your child’s age and more on any chronic medical or developmental issues he or she is experiencing. A pediatric specialist may be the most appropriate provider to oversee your child’s care in this case, so speak with your pediatrician about when a transition is most beneficial.
In my practice, I’ve found that many teens begin to feel uncomfortable going to a pediatrician in high school. Sitting in a waiting room filled with children’s toys—and oftentimes crying babies—can be embarrassing for them. If your child is ready to move on to the next phase of care, be open to having that discussion.
Finding a New Physician for Your Adolescent
Family medicine physicians treat patients of all ages, from newborn to elderly. Internal medicine physicians typically see patients 16 years of age and older. These physicians can manage the gamut of health and wellness services for your child, from routine immunizations and blood work to screening for illnesses and having conversations about sexual health. In fact, these physicians can perform routine pelvic exams and prescribe birth control if it’s indicated.
One option for care for your child is your own trusted primary care physician. In my 20 years practicing in Freehold, I’ve seen many members of the same family. I’ve seen patients that I treated as children come in with children of their own. That’s one of the perks of being a primary care doctor: I get to see my patients and their families grow up. This continuity of care helps when we’re discussing conditions that can run in families. And, due to doctor-patient confidentiality regulations, I can’t discuss a patient’s care with another family member without their permission.
When Should A Parent Leave the Exam Room?
Another question parents ask me is when their child should go into the exam room by themselves. There’s no cut and dried age for this, but I recommend that parents encourage their children to begin getting comfortable discussing their health one-on-one with providers as they get closer to the college years. Since your young adult will likely be handling doctor’s visits and preventive care solo in college (and beyond), it’s important for them to be able to discuss their health issues—including mental health issues—on their own.
Perhaps the most important advice that I can give to parents during this transition is to make sure to get the immunization records from your child’s pediatrician before transferring to a new physician.
While it may be hard to accept that your baby is becoming an adult, it’s important that he or she becomes comfortable accessing healthcare services without your assistance and be a proactive advocate for his or her own health and wellness moving forward.
Dr. Nancy Peters is board certified in internal medicine and pediatrics and is on staff at CentraState Medical Center.