ATLANTA—Managing teenage patients may present challenges for pediatric rheumatologists and rheumatology professionals not only because of their often complex, rare conditions, but because teenagers are, well, teenagers.
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Explore This IssueJanuary 2020
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Teens may experiment with sexual intercourse, alcohol use, tobacco or vaping e-cigarettes to fit in with their peers, even if these habits have serious health consequences, according to two pediatric rheumatology providers who offered tips for building trusting relationships and addressing awkward topics with teenage patients at a session on Nov. 13 at the 2019 ACR/ARP Annual Meeting.
“Our teenage patients challenge us in ways we can’t even imagine,” said Beth Gottlieb, MD, MS, director of pediatric rheumatology, Cohen Children’s Medical Center, Queens, N.Y. “When we diagnose a child who’s very young, we see them for a long time, and they grow up. They change. We sometimes forget that.”
Teens May Hide Behaviors
Teens with rheumatic diseases may have symptoms that are not obvious to peers or teachers, who may not be sympathetic or understanding. They struggle to deal with taking daily medications or having regular infusions, as well as years of medical appointments and blood tests. Corticosteroids and other medications may cause weight gain. All of these factors may negatively affect adolescent patients’ self-image or mental health, said Dr. Gottlieb.
Teens may also hide risky behaviors from their physicians. “Teenagers aren’t always truthful,” she said. “They’re liars. We all know it. We ask them, ‘Are you taking your medications?’ Bad question to ask, because that already imposes a little bit of judgment. A better way to word this is, ‘How many doses of medication do you miss in a week?’ Or if it’s a weekly medicine, ‘How many do you miss in a month?’ It leaves the conversation open, and it’s less judgmental, so they’re not as afraid to tell us. Try to engage them in a way that doesn’t sound scolding. As we gain trust with them, confidentiality will come, and that’s a very important factor.”
Pediatric rheumatologists may see their patients when they are quickly changing and maturing. Re-educate your patients about their disease, its symptoms and potential complications, such as uveitis, and the importance of being compliant with their medications even if you discussed these topics when they were younger.
Alcohol Use May Start Early
Teenagers may be curious about what will happen if they skip doses of their medication or drink alcohol along with their medicine even if their rheumatologist tells them not to try it, Dr. Gottlieb said.
“I think we overestimate the age at which alcohol becomes an issue for our patients,” said Dr. Gottlieb, adding that she has treated patients in middle school who tell her that if they cannot drink alcohol while taking their medication, it is a “deal breaker,” and they want to use a different drug. “We need to talk about drinking early, because you never know when this is going to be an important issue to discuss. Alcohol is there. We need to recognize that it could be a factor.”
Talk openly with teens about the specific ways that drinking could affect their illness, such as flare risk, or how alcohol interacts with methotrexate, leflunomide and cyclosporine. Repeat this discussion at each office visit, because teens forget these conversations or may want to impress new peers, she said.
“I had one teenage patient who thought they could outsmart the system by moving their methotrexate to Sunday and drink on Saturday night. Didn’t work! I found out when I tested their liver enzymes. Education is really important,” said Dr. Gottlieb.