Bright Idea: A Free Teen Clinic Reduces Barriers to Health Care

Photograph of a medical professional listening to a young woman's heart.

For unaccompanied youth, pregnant teens and other young people independently seeking free health care, going to an adult clinic can be daunting. Those wary of authority may be nervous about sharing personal information. Others don’t know their health history, or fear they’ll be talked down to by a doctor or nurse.

“This age group is really stuck,” says Eddie Bonin, instructor of clinical pediatrics at Tulane University’s Section of Adolescent Medicine. “They’re not quite adults, but they’re also not children.”

Bonin oversees Tulane’s Drop-in Clinic, which provides free medical care to New Orleans youth age 23 and under. Giving teens their own space, Bonin says, has helped the clinic earn young people’s trust and increased word of mouth. Yet even in communities without a teen clinic, family and youth workers can benefit from learning what to look for when connecting youth to health services.

Breaking Barriers

One of the most important factors in helping disconnected youth, Bonin says, is reducing the barriers to trust. At the Drop-in Clinic, staff members limit the personal details they ask patients to share before an appointment. Young people may be asked to give their name and birthday, for example, but they don’t have to show identification and won’t be turned away for providing false information.

Staff at the Drop-in Clinic, Bonin says, have also learned to ask youth the right questions to encourage them to open up about their lives. Asking where they sleep at night, for example, is generally more effective than asking if they’re homeless.

Youth are also asked if they’d like information about birth control and safe sex, topics that they may be too embarrassed to bring up on their own. Patients 13 and older are typically screened for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, and young parents are encouraged to bring their children to see the onsite pediatrician.

Even the clinic’s physical setup, Bonin says, can make a difference. When Hurricane Katrina forced the Drop-in Clinic to relocate to Covenant House New Orleans in 2005, some patients were put off by tightened security at the new building. Staff at both organizations worked together to make the facility more welcoming without compromising safety, even removing a gate around the building’s perimeter.

“Every time you throw up a door or gate, that’s a barrier,” Bonin says. “It’s a physical barrier and it’s intimidating to people.”

Asking the Right Questions

Here are some things you might want to think about when connecting youth in your program to health centers and clinics:

  • Are they flexible? At the Tulane clinic, most appointments last 45 minutes or longer. Doctors and nurses may shorten the appointment, however, if they see a young person is too nervous or agitated to stay that long comfortably.
  • Do their staff members like working with teens? Seems like a given, but clinic staffs’ attitude toward young people could make or break a youth’s decision to get medical attention.
  • Can youth give feedback? At the Drop-in Clinic, patients are invited to share their opinions at quarterly feedback meetings. The sessions enable clinic staff to tailor services to their youth clientele.
  • Do staff empower youth to take care of their health? In New Orleans, clinic staff try to give youth enough information to manage their health on their own while encouraging them to come back as often as they’d like for follow-ups.
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