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Teaching Adolescents How to Use the Healthcare System

Adolescents and young adults need to master a set of skills to successfully use the U.S. healthcare system. These skills include literacy (reading and understanding information), numeracy (working with numbers), communication, and organizational skills. 

The table below lists some basic skills that adolescents must possess to navigate the healthcare system and includes some of the knowledge needed to support the development of those skills. It also suggests some ways adolescents might practice each of the skills.

Depending on each adolescent’s experiences with the healthcare system (e.g., if they have a special healthcare need), some may be comfortable with certain skills earlier than others. In general, all adolescents will learn at their own pace, and support from families, caregivers, and healthcare providers can make the process even easier.

Table 1: Essential Skills Needed to Use the Healthcare System

Adolescent Skill Knowledge Needed Some Ways to Practice (from basic to advanced)

Ability to communicate with different types of healthcare providers, including asking questions and advocating for themselves

  • Know their body, including names of body parts and when something does not feel normal
  • Hold a conversation independently with an authority figure, including asking questions or pointing out when a request does not meet their needs
  • Understand that a provider’s type or specialty can affect their approach to providing healthcare and that different health issues may require seeing a specific kind of provider
  • Have the adolescent describe to the healthcare provider how they feel
  • Have the adolescent prepare and/or ask 1–2 questions about their care or their body
  • Have the adolescent set their goals for a health visit and articulate them to the healthcare provider

Ability to follow healthcare provider’s advice

  • Know basic terms for the human body
  • Read labels and/or charts
  • Understand the difference between suggestions and things that they must do
  • Recognize units of measurement and time
  • Have the adolescent explain in their own words what they need to do for care
  • Ask the adolescent to identify things that may make it hard to follow their healthcare provider’s instructions
  • Allow the adolescent to manage their own treatment, checking in sporadically

Ability to make and keep healthcare visits

  • Know different kinds of healthcare providers 
  • Understand their health needs, including knowing how often they need different types of preventive care
  • Look up information about providers
  • Make calls and/or fill out forms
  • Manage their own schedule, including figuring out transportation and resolving time conflicts
  • Make a list with the adolescent about the different medical visits they need in a year
  • Ask the adolescent if they have a specific health issue they want to address, and to research who they might want to see to get help
  • Have the adolescent identify the times that work best for them (and those who help them get care) and call/fill out the necessary forms to make an appointment

Ability to manage their health insurance and healthcare records

  • Know health insurance terms
  • Know technical terms specific to their health and their family health history
  • Manage and maintain their health insurance and other ID cards
  • Become comfortable with asking clarifying questions 
  • Understand and fill out forms
  • Read a bill and/or explanation of benefits to identify how much is owed and how to pay
  • Know their rights and who can access their information (or be able to read and comprehend disclosures)
  • Talk to the adolescent about what they know about their family’s medical history and explain what different conditions mean
  • Show adolescents how to use their (or their family’s) insurance plan to find a provider
  • Have adolescents fill out medical forms for themselves

Sources: Sample Transition Readiness Assessment for Youth (Got Transition); Adolescent Health Care Skills Checklist (Shasta County, California); Take Charge of Your Health Care (Adolescent Health Initiative at Michigan Medicine); Giving Teens a Voice in Health Care Decisions (KidsHealth, from Nemours); When Your Child Outgrows Pediatric Care (KidsHealth, from Nemours); Conceptualising health literacy from the patient perspective (Patient Education and Counseling); Health literacy and public health: A systematic review and integration of definitions and models (BMC Public Health); Fact sheet: Health literacy basics  (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion); Health Literary (National Network of Libraries of Medicine)



Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on August 6, 2019