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Online health records could help high-risk teens, study finds

Teens who get in trouble with the law often have serious untreated health problems, such as asthma, sexually transmitted infections, mental illnesses or substance abuse. Many of these high-risk youth also lack two important health resources available to other teens: Regular access to the health-care system and a stable parent or other adult who can reliably help them navigate it. Because these teens are so disengaged from the health-care system, their needs are often overlooked when physicians consider how to better reach out to patients.

But new research from Stanford and the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center suggests that modern technology, in the form of online health records, could be surprisingly useful for this underserved group.

The research, published online today in Pediatrics, surveyed youth in local juvenile halls and found that, when they are not incarcerated, these teens have high rates of Internet access, with more than 85 percent going online at least once a week - a somewhat surprising figure given that older research shows low Internet use in underprivileged groups. The teens were also enthusiastic about the idea of having their medical histories stored online in a way that would allow them secure access to medical information later, with 90 percent of study participants saying they would want to use online health records.

In our press release about the study, senior author Arash Anoshiravani, MD, explained his reaction to the findings:

"I didn't expect this level of interest because they don't typically think of health as something that's part of their daily lives," Anoshiravani said, adding that these teens engage in risky behaviors that make them seem cavalier about their health.

However, given the instability of these individuals' lives, online health records are actually a very logical option, Anoshiravani continued. Although these young people may lack a parent who could file away an immunization record or call the doctor's office to get a lab report, most have reliable access to a laptop or smartphone, the study found:

"Carrying around pieces of paper that they could lose did not make sense to them, but having a place to check this information online did make a lot of sense," [Anoshiravani] added.

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