At the beginning of adolescence, you’ll generally be fully responsible for your child’s health care. But by the end of adolescence, your child is assumed to be able to make decisions about his health for himself. This includes seeing a doctor on his own, confidentially. You can help him make this transition, but he’ll need your support as he gains this independence.
Encouraging your child’s ‘health independence’
As your child makes the change towards gaining her ‘health independence’, you’ll need to feel confident she has the skills to manage her own health, and to get the best health and wellbeing outcomes she can. She won’t become an expert manager of her health overnight – just as with other skills, she’ll need practice.
When your child sees his doctor without you present, it gives the GP a chance to assess your child’s physical and mental health and wellbeing. The doctor will find out how your child is going at school and with friends, whether your child has any emotional concerns, whether he’s safe in terms of relationships and substance use, and whether he’s engaged in any risky behaviour
Working out the right time for you both
While your child is still in early adolescence, it can be a good idea for her to see the doctor alone for part of a consultation. Generally, doctors who see adolescent children will try to arrange for this to happen. This time can be gradually increased. By later adolescence, your child will probably be comfortable seeing the doctor for the whole consultation by herself.
But when should this start? After all, one 13-year-old might want to try seeing the doctor alone, whereas the idea might make another child the same age feel very stressed.
This is something you and your child can work out together. Talk to him to see what he’s comfortable with, re-evaluating the process to see how he’s feeling about it before appointments.
When doctors see a young person alone, it doesn’t mean they think parents no longer matter, or that they don’t appreciate the vital role parents play in teenagers’ lives. Confidentiality gives doctors an extra strategy to help young people talk openly. It can help doctors reinforce how important parents are to the health and wellbeing of young people.
Confidentiality is at the heart of the doctor–patient relationship. As adults, when we go to the doctor we expect that our health issues will be kept private. Knowing this helps us trust our GP. This trust makes us feel comfortable so we can tell the doctor what she needs to know to make the right diagnosis, offer the best advice and provide the right treatment.
Confidentiality is also a legal requirement for doctors.
The benefits of young people seeing a doctor confidentially
There are several benefits for young people in seeing a doctor without having a parent present.
Research shows they’re more likely to be honest with the doctor about their worries, such as bullying at school, relationships or substance use. They’re also more likely to ask questions about sensitive matters, giving the doctor the chance to offer guidance on issues that might come up in the future.
It also gives your teenager the chance to practise communicating with a doctor alone, a skill he’ll need for the rest of his life. It also helps him take greater responsibility for his health.
Last, allowing your child to see the doctor alone shows that you support her developing independence.
The rules of ‘confidential care’
In most situations, doctors and other health professionals can’t tell anybody else – including you – what they’re told during a consultation if the child wishes the conversation to be kept confidential. This is called ‘confidential care’.
But there are some exceptions the GP has to keep in mind when providing confidential care. The main exceptions are if your child is at risk of seriously harming himself or someone else, or if he’s being abused or harmed by someone else. Doctors in these situations must take steps to keep your child safe, even if it involves breaking your child’s confidentiality.
Consent for treatment
Your child’s doctor can prescribe treatment to your child without your consent if the doctor believes that your child is mature enough to fully understand the treatment and if the treatment is not of a serious nature.
Generally, your child’s doctor will try to involve you in making treatment decisions or providing other support to help manage your child’s health problem. But if the young person doesn’t want this to happen and the doctor considers that your child is competent to consent on her own, the doctor doesn’t have to legally gain your permission.
In Australia, the age at which a young person is able to consent to simple treatments without involving a parent or guardian is around 14 years. Each state and territory has slightly different laws about this, and the laws aren’t based solely on age. You can find out more in our article: What’s legal when: teenagers and the law.
Choosing a new doctor
Talk with your child about how comfortable he feels going to the family doctor for a whole range of things, not just coughs and colds. For many young people, continuing to see the family GP is fine. But for some, visiting the same doctor they’ve seen since childhood – and the same one that you see – just isn’t on.
Your child might want to see a different doctor because she:
- doesn’t feel comfortable with the family doctor any more
- wants to see a doctor who doesn’t know her parents
- wants to talk more openly about issues such as relationships (including sexual matters), mental health or substance use
- wants to manage her own health, starting a brand new doctor–patient relationship
- doesn’t trust the family doctor with confidential information.
If your child decides to change doctors, it’s helpful to remind him about important aspects of his personal or family history – for example, allergies, asthma or diabetes – for his new file.