Pennsylvania Teen Health Week Aims to Raise Awareness and Education of Teen Health Issues

There are about 2 million teens living in Pennsylvania, and teens often have unique health issues that may be different from adults and younger children. In an effort to raise awareness of these issues,
Gov. Tom Wolf has declared Jan. 25-29, 2016, Pennsylvania Teen Health Week ― the first ever teen health week in the country.

On Jan. 19, 2016, the Pennsylvania Medical Society (PAMED) held a media call-in on Teen Health Week. Panelists included Laura Offutt, MD, founder and creator of Real Talk with Dr. Offutt and a physician from Delaware County; Loren Robinson, MD, MSHP, FAAP, deputy secretary for health promotion and disease prevention at the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH); Herbert Hazan, FCPP, former director of student and employee health of the School District of Philadelphia and past president of the Radnor Township Board of Health; Robert Sharrar, MD, MSc, DSc, FCPP, chair of the Section on Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia; and PAMED President Scott Shaprio, MD, FACC, FCPP.

During the call-in, Dr. Offutt said that the idea for Teen Health Week was discussed this past summer with her student advisors. She said that while it was originally envisioned to be a small event, it’s become a larger, statewide event because one of the teens in the advisor group had the idea to obtain a state proclamation.

When asked to describe the pillars of Teen Health Week, Dr. Offutt said that it focuses on five key areas:

  1. Healthy diet and exercise
  2. Violence
  3. Mental health
  4. Sexual development and health
  5. Substance use and abuse

“Many teens tell me they really want to understand why if teens know something is dangerous they would do it anyway,” said Dr. Offutt. ““As adults, we really need to listen to what teens have to say.”

Dr. Offutt also talked about the Teen Health Week Toolkit, which is a take-off point that includes easy, inexpensive ideas that medical practices, schools, and others can incorporate during Teen Health Week.

Real Talk with Dr. Offutt – a web-based teen health resource that consists of a blog- based website that has a social media presence – was designed to provide teen health education to teens in an accessible, friendly, humorous when appropriate way, and to encourage questions and discussion around teen health topics.

Since 90 percent of teens go online with health questions, Dr. Offutt says she hopes that this provides an opportunity to help teens improve their online health literacy.

PAMED President Dr. Shapiro says physicians play a critical role in helping teens develop healthy habits that can prevent serious illnesses later in life.

“These issues are important to Pennsylvania physicians, and, on a personal level, they are important to me as a father of three young children,” said Dr. Shapiro.

He talked about PAMED’s advocacy efforts on teen health issues such as driving and texting and indoor tanning, and said that “in recent years, we’ve not only addressed these issues via legislative efforts, but also through member and patient education.”

“The role that doctors play is frequently as a clinician, where we’re prescribing care,” he said, “but, it’s also at times as counselors. “We’ll often be treating victims of violence or those with mental health or substances abuse issues, and we treat many of the diseases related to diet and lack of exercise. But frankly, the better care path is a preventive care path. So, physicians and other health care professionals must also counsel teens on these issues, particularly when they are in our office for physical exams and other potentially unrelated appointments.”

Dr. Robinson, deputy secretary for health promotion and disease prevention at DOH, said that while teen pregnancy rates appear to be decreasing, there is an increase in bullying and suicide rates. “There is still more work to be done,” she said. She cited more than 60 percent of Pennsylvania teens reported experiencing dating violence, and that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young adults ages 10-24.

She said that DOH is looking forward to expanding successful peer-peer and youth mentoring by adults programs and anti-bullying initiatives.

Herbert Hazan, former director of student and employee health of the School District of Philadelphia, talked about the biannual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which was started in the 1990s by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is a self-reported survey where students report on their health status and experiences anonymously. It covers behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence, sexual behaviors that contribute to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol and other drug use, tobacco use, unhealthy dietary behaviors, inadequate physical activity, and more.

He shared some results from the 2012-2013 survey that compared Philadelphia youth to the national average.

Hazan also said that while parents manage their kids’ health and health care up to a certain point, when they finish high school, and go off to work or an institution of higher learning, they need to know how to manage their health and health care. He says we haven’t been doing an adequate job equipping them to do this.

He said we also have to look at the interaction of all of factors. For example, if we look at bullying and suicide, there is a connection in many cases with the outcomes he said.

Dr. Sharrar, Chair of the Section on Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, said that behavior, such as use of tobacco, poor diet, not using seatbelts/helmets, having unprotected sex, etc, is a primary determinant of health outcomes.. He also said that we need to educate teenagers on what they need to do to improve and maintain their health. Teen Health Week is a call to action for adults to do what they can to promote good health among their teenagers.

“We need to emphasize that one of the important things is that Teen Health Week creates a public discussion on teen health, hopefully to get teens and adults talking about teen health issues, and teens talking amongst themselves,” he said.

He also told a story of when he was a medical resident and was taking care of man in early 40s dying from disease associated with alcohol abuse. He remembers thinking that “we’re spending too much money/time at the wrong end of life.  We should be doing more to prevent this sort of thing from happening.”

Dr. Shapiro also thanked Gov. Wolf, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and the panelists who worked hard to make this week a reality.

Learn more in Dr. Offutt’s guest blog for PAMED.