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Transition from pediatric care to adult primary care: A parent's guide

Patient talking to a doctor at the doctor's office

As a parent, one of your many responsibilities is to ensure that your child receives the best possible health care throughout their development. During the early years, this typically involves regular visits to a pediatrician, a primary care physician who specializes in the health and well-being of infants, children and adolescents. However, there comes a time when your child will outgrow the need for pediatric care and will need to transition from pediatric care to an adult primary care physician. This transition is a significant milestone for young adults, and navigating it successfully requires thoughtful planning and consideration.

If you have a teenager or young adult who has outgrown pediatric care or has been asked to transition to a primary care doctor, here is what you need to know about making the leap to the most appropriate care for young – but growing – members of the family.

Understanding the transition to adult primary care

The transition from pediatric to adult health care is more than just a change of doctors; it's a shift in health care philosophy. Pediatricians are trained to focus on developmental milestones, prevention and treatment of childhood illnesses. Newly adult patients can move from pediatrics to another type of primary care, such as family medicine or internal medicine.

Adult primary care physicians (PCPs) handle a broader range of health issues that can affect a patient from young adulthood through old age. These adult PCPs include family medicine doctors and internal medicine doctors.

Here’s a brief explanation of each primary care field:

Pediatric Care
A pediatric doctor or nurse practitioner will likely be the first primary care provider a child will see on a regular basis. Pediatricians are focused on keeping children healthy from infancy through young adulthood. They provide annual wellness visits, immunizations and, of course, treatment for the inevitable illnesses and injuries. Most pediatric patients can “graduate” to a family medicine or internal medicine practitioner at around 18 years of age.

Family Medicine
Family medicine practitioners are primary care providers who specialize in preventive care and treatment for every member of the family, at any age. This one-stop shop provides families everything from a child’s immunizations to annual well woman exams to treatment for the colds and flus that sweep through a household in no time flat.

Internal Medicine
Also called internists, internal medicine providers are primary care doctors and nurse practitioners who offer health care for adults who are 18 years and older. Internists are uniquely equipped to diagnose, manage and treat a variety of illnesses and chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease. They help patients with preventive care, annual wellness visits, sick visits and may provide other services.

Use our online search tool to find a family or internal medicine provider who specializes in primary care and taking new patients.

Find a Primary Care Provider

When to move from pediatrics to adult primary care

The timing of the switch to adult primary care can vary. Some patients will move at age 18, whereas others may begin that transition sooner or if there are factors that would make a family medicine provider a good fit for them.

Some factors to consider when deciding on the right time to make the move include:

  1. Age. While some pediatricians will see patients until they're 21 years old, many may prefer to transition patients at age 18. Ask your primary care physician about their requirements long before your child becomes an adult.

  2. Developmental readiness. Consider your child's maturity level and their ability to manage their own health care needs.

  3. Medical needs. If your child has chronic conditions or special health care needs, a more gradual transition might be necessary.

  4. Insurance changes. Health insurance coverage may change at certain ages, which can affect the timing of the transition.

  5. Life after high school. If your child will be going to college, attending a trade school or taking a gap year away from home, you may wish to time the switch to adult primary care to coincide with their move. Whether your child already has a primary care provider or will be getting established with their first PCP, they will likely need to schedule their first appointment in person.

Preparing for adult primary care
  1. Start early. Begin discussions with your child's pediatrician about the transition during early adolescence, around age 14 or so. This allows plenty of time to address any concerns and to prepare your child for managing their health as an adult.

  2. Involve your child. Encourage your child to take an active role in their health care. This includes ensuring they understand their medical history, are aware of necessary ongoing treatments, and can schedule appointments and refill prescriptions.

  3. Choose the right physician. Search for a primary care physician who is a good fit for your child's needs and personality. Seek recommendations from your pediatrician, friends or family members. It's important to find a doctor who is experienced in any specific health concerns your child may have.

  4. Schedule an appointment. Arrange a preliminary visit with the new physician before the first official appointment. This allows your child to become comfortable with the new setting and new doctor.

  5. Transfer medical records. Ensure that your child's medical history, including immunization records, is transferred to the new physician well before the first appointment.

  6. Discuss confidentiality. Your child should understand that they are entitled to confidential health care as they become adults, and they should feel comfortable discussing personal health issues with their new physician.

  7. Plan for specialty care. If your child sees specialists for certain conditions, coordinate with these providers to ensure continuity of care during and after the transition.

  8. Address legal matters. Once your child turns 18, they're legally an adult, and you won't have automatic access to their medical information. Discuss with your child whether they'd like to sign a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) release form or other documents that allow you to be involved in their health care decisions.

    • Proxy access gives parents and legal guardians access to information for children under the age of 18. Learn more about proxy access by age of the patient so you can discuss with your child about them granting you access to their MyChart account where you can view medical records and make appointments.

  9. Follow up. After the transition to primary care, check in with your child to see how they're adjusting to the new doctor and whether they have any concerns or need further guidance.

The transition from pediatric care to a primary care physician is a significant step toward independence for your child. By preparing adequately and engaging in open communication, you can help ensure a smooth and successful move to primary care that sets the foundation for a lifetime of good health and self-advocacy in health care matters. 

Remember that each child is unique, and the switch to primary care from pediatric care should be tailored to fit their individual needs and circumstances. With the right approach, you can empower your child to take charge of their health as they enter adulthood.

Meet our primary care providers

If you are a young adult or caregiver of a teen and ready to transition from pediatric care to adult primary care, we have an online search and scheduling tool to make it easy to find a specialist who fits your needs and is taking new patients.

Find a Primary Care Provider

A BJC primary care provider serves as your health partner, providing preventive health care and treatment for illnesses, injuries and chronic conditions. If you do not have one, find a primary care provider accepting new patients. Learn more.

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