Voice cracks, acne, hair sprouting in new and alarming places…we all went through that inevitable stage of human development. And for many of us, our childhood pediatrician saw us through our undignified hormonal changes, and remained a constant until we turned eighteen. But the fact is, children pre- and post-puberty have significantly different medical concerns.
In recent years, with an increased focus on mental health and an ever-evolving understanding of childhood development, adolescent medicine has become a more ubiquitous subspecialty. So what is adolescent medicine, and what is the difference between pediatric and adolescent medicine?
What’s the focus of an adolescent medicine specialist?
An 'Adolescent Specialist' can be a focus for either pediatricians or family physicians. This type of specialist manages all aspects of health needs for patients in the adolescent stage of human development. Generally speaking, adolescence spans roughly 12-18 years old.
While pediatric and adolescent medicine are clearly related, there are a wide variety of differences that clinicians need to pay attention to. Pediatricians only need to focus on the growth and development of children, while adolescents are developing into adults. Their set of social and hormonal issues can make treatment and examinations trickier to manage without the right training.
Both pediatric and adolescent medicine place priority on medical exams, but adolescent medicine requires more complete medical histories, diagnostic tests, and complex treatment plans. Adolescent specialists may treat conditions including:
- Growth problems
- Hormone problems
- Developmental disorders
- Musculoskeletal injuries including sports injuries
Adolescents may also have complex issues that can affect them both physically and mentally. These include layered psychosocial issues such as:
- Substance abuse
- Eating disorders
- Sexual activity and STI’s
- Gender affirming/Transgender needs
Having a specialty in the adolescent medicine field can prepare pediatricians to manage both pediatric and adolescent medicine comprehensively, and offer helpful solutions.
Why is adolescent medicine important?
Adolescent medicine has become an increasingly visible subspecialty since medical professionals have a better grasp of young people’s health needs. There have been major changes in societal roles, and an understanding that adolescence marks an important transition phase into healthy adulthood.
Adolescents have unique needs in the physical, psychological and social realm that require a uniquely tailored focus. In addition, adolescent medicine requires a doctor to draw from other medical disciplines in order to address the specific needs of the adolescent.
Understanding and defining the onset of adolescence, both on the biological and psychosocial level, allows for appropriate treatment and an increased focus and understanding of educational and research needs. In addition, recent social changes have impacted adolescents in a significant way, requiring an interdisciplinary approach to adolescent care. According to the Council of Pediatric Subspecialties, there is currently a shortage of medical specialists for teenagers.
What’s the future of adolescent medicine?
Given a more informed understanding of adolescent development, bigger opportunities and challenges will certainly come into play. With a better understanding of behavioral trends in adolescents, professionals will likely find impacts on the health of adolescents across a broad spectrum. Vaccines for HPV and HIV, as well as an increase in adolescent obesity, could affect the overall health of adolescents as they transition into adulthood.
The increased use of technology and social media will have an impact on an adolescent’s life and lifestyle choices. As such, families will need to gain a solid understanding of the influence that technology plays in a teen’s life.
At this very moment, the impact of COVID-19 on adolescent health, education, and social development is still unfolding. Over the next few years, adolescent specialists will likely need to keep a close eye on their patients as our understanding of the pandemic’s effects on long-term development and health have yet to be fully understood.
A pediatrician who specializes in adolescent medicine possesses the skill set to take a multi-disciplinary approach to address the physical, psychological, and social needs of teens and young adults. This impact puts pediatricians in a unique position to have a positive effect on the lives of children and young adults.