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Tweens’ and teens’ medical info is private, even to parents

Tweens’ and teens’ medical info is private, even to parents

My 12-year-old will visit Santa in a few weeks. She eagerly awaits the arrival of the magic elf. She loves Percy Jackson and Harry Potter and Baby Yoda and Star Wars. She does not drive (chauffeur here), she does not schedule her own calendar (social director here), she will barely brush her hair or teeth or retrieve her dirty clothes from the floor until I screech in a Medusa-like frenzy (mother here).

So it is with great irritation that I wrangle with our health care provider’s website, trying to schedule her COVID-19 booster (“We’re sorry. Unable to continue….”).

And reorder her Epi-pen prescription (“We are unable to display your list of prescriptions at this time….”).

And authorize the sharing of records (“You don’t have permission to use this service on behalf of your teen….”).

First of all, people, she is not a teen! She is 12. Yet 12-year-olds in California have privacy rights that vastly complicate my job as mom to orchestrate her health care. By letter of law, we have no right to many important details, which can be as infuriating as it is inconvenient.

I understand that these laws can protect kids in turbulent households. If parents are the vaccines-contain-bots-allowing-Bill-Gates-to-control-your-brain types, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to allow teens who understand science to seek a COVID-19 or HPV or RSV vaccine. If parents are fire-and-brimstone-and-eternal-damnation types and the teen is sexually active, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to keep reproductive choices private. If parents are abusers and the teen needs counseling, or if the teen is the victim of assault at home, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to keep those records under wraps.

But for heaven’s sake. Doctors are mandated reporters. Call child protective services! Call the cops! There are some 8.8 million children in California, and about 271,000 of them were subjects of an investigated child maltreatment report, according to federal data.

I’m not entirely clear why that means I, the mother of a 12-year-old child who’s happy and healthy and spoiled rotten, can’t access my kid’s full medical records.

“Many parents and guardians in California are surprised to learn that when their child turns 12, they have limited access to their child’s medical records,” says an explainer from Scripps Health.

Mom tells Scout that you need a schtick. Junior years. (Photo courtesy of Teri Sforza, SCNG)
Sforza and the kid (Photo courtesy of Teri Sforza, SCNG)

“Under federal and California law, when minors reach age 12, they have the legal right to health information privacy, which triggers some changes in the health information parents and guardians can view for their child…. In addition, teens (ages 12-17) have the right to discuss their health with their provider in private, without a parent present.”

While providers strongly believe in partnering with parents, they also are serious about ensuring that adolescents feel they can have private conversations with doctors, especially around sensitive topics such as substance abuse counseling, sexually transmitted disease testing and family planning, including birth control, their primers say.

Teens can appoint their parents or legal guardians as proxies. This grants parents access to some, but not all, information on their accounts, Loma Linda University Health explains.

Parents with proxy access can make appointments, send messages to the health care team, review and refill most prescriptions. Beyond their view are some test results, upcoming or past appointments, and information about mental health, reproductive health and substance abuse.

There’s an argument to be made here that, as a parent, this is exactly the kind of information I most need to know about my kid. And it’s with profound discomfort that I find myself echoing some of the lines I hear in school board battles over parental notification rules. Honestly, some of those people scare the hell out of me. The givens some take for granted — that those in government and public education are actual purveyors of evil seeking to “pervert” children — seem delusional, at best.

But kernels of truth transcend the nuttiness of politics. “I get that there are bad parents out there, but I’ll defer to parents 99% of the time,” said Lance Christiansen, vice president for education policy for the very conservative California Policy Center, which is pushing parental notification policies at school boards all over the state.

“If a doctor really wants to give the best diagnosis, prognosis, care, to a child, they should absolutely want the parent in the mix.”

Christiansen and I would agree on very little, but he has a point here. Over the past several years, laws have been passed that, in his eyes at least, “provide almost unlimited power to a child over 12 to say or do whatever they want to get away from their parents. It’s a recipe for societal suicide. We can’t let teens make major decisions without parental input,” he said.

Doctors, incidentally, do a bit of eye-rolling about these rules.

I took said 12-year-old to an appointment with her pediatrician (definition: doctor for children) last week. I have proxy access — note how well it served me in the examples above — and she confessed to being a bit miffed about it all as well. The three of us talked about All The Big Things we needed to talk about, and then I offered to leave them alone for the examination part.

Not because there’s anything I can imagine her discussing with her doctor that she wouldn’t discuss with me, but because I want her to learn to hold her own without me by her side and handle bits of autonomy.

What all this forces, essentially, is genuine and deep communication between parent and child. Seems like I should know if my kid is having sex, or using drugs, or suffering abuse, without depending on a medical chart to tell me.

It’s a challenge I have no choice but to accept — at least until she turns 13.

That’s how old she must be to get her own account in our health care provider’s system. Then we’ll create that account together — and I will keep the password.


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