Learning Medical Independence

April is Sexually Transmitted Disease Awareness month (#STDMonth18).  The theme of this year is Treat Me Right (#TreatMeRight). This theme has 2 distinct sides: the provider and the patient. For providers, it means obtaining an accurate medical and social history (including risk-taking behaviors, like sexual activity) for every patient. For patients, it means knowing how to ask providers for the care that they need and deserve, for sexual health as well as all other kinds of health.  How to be an independent health care consumer is an important skill to learn for all teens and young adults.

You know your teen best and are a great advocate for them. However, your teen will eventually be out on their own and need to learn how to take care of their health and navigate the health care system. At the start of each academic year, I have at least one college freshman come to student health clueless about their medical history.  The conversation goes as follows:

Provider: “What medications do you take?”

Student: “I take a little white pill every day.”

Provider: “What’s the name of the white pill?”

Student: “I dunno.”

Provider: “Ok. What do you take this medication for?”

Student: “I dunno. Let me text my mom.”

Provider: Sigh.


Here are 5 tips to help your teen become a medically independent individual both seamlessly and successfully.

1. Talking

Does this scenario sound familiar? Your teen is at their doctor’s appointment. They are staring at their phone, texting a friend or playing a game. Maybe they answer any yes/no questions the doctor has but otherwise you are doing all of the talking. Setting the stage for medical independence starts early. Let your teen talk FIRST during their doctor’s appointment. Try not to interrupt but you can help clarify any answers for the doctor if needed. Allowing your teen to talk about their health helps them learn to become an advocate for themselves and a part of the clinical decision making process.  Also, make sure each teen gets a little alone time with the health care provider at each visit – this is imperative! We have talked about the importance of teens having private time with the health care provider in previous blogs.

2. Knowing

Past health plays an important role in present health. Your teen should know their medical conditions, medications (including name, dose, frequency and why they take it), allergies (including reaction), past surgeries (including date), and family history (heart conditions, cancers, strokes/blood clots, mental health, etc). Your teen should also have a copy of their vaccination record, especially as they transition to college and adult health care.

3. Managing

Your teen should start to become an active participant in his or her own health. This includes learning how to make appointments and refill prescriptions. If your teen has a chronic medical condition, they should learn to become self-sufficient in the daily cares associated with this condition.

4. Caring

A good foundation in self-care starts with establishing healthy eating habits, a regular exercise regimen, and good sleep hygiene. Self-care goes beyond this though to knowing how to care for yourself when you get sick. Have your teen create a personal sick day kit for themselves to have handy (here’s our post on things to bring to the dorm). This can includes things like a thermometer, bandages, gauze, alcohol pads, hand sanitizer, antibiotic ointment, hydrocortisone cream, Neti pot, saline nasal spray/rinse, cough drops, over the counter decongestant/cough medicine, acetaminophen (Tylenol), and ibuprofen (Advil, Aleve). Discuss with your teen when they should go to their regular doctor vs go to urgent care or the emergency room. Your pediatrician can help you with this discussion.

5. Choosing

When the time comes, let your teen choose their adult doctor. To help make the process easier and find someone who will be a good fit for your teen, UW Health has online profiles for all of their doctors. These online profiles include areas of interests, educational backgrounds and professional certifications. Some doctors even have videos in which they discuss why they love their specialty, what patient care looks like to them, and how they view the patient-provider relationship.


Helping your teen take these steps toward medical independence can be a rewarding journey for both you and your teen. This is an important and worthwhile investment that can affect your teen’s health and how they approach the health care system for the rest of their life.