Teens need specialized care. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
Teens need specialized care. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

After spending just a few minutes with Lisa Lowery, MD, you get the feeling she can enter a room with a cheerful greeting capable of winning over even the toughest eye-rolling teen in town.

Dr. Lowery practices adolescent medicine at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

Wait … who knew there is such a thing as a medical specialty dedicated to teens? Many parents might ask, “Where have you been all our lives?”

At the hospital’s adolescent medicine clinic, for 26 years, as it turns out.

With an uptick in well-deserved attention being paid to the health needs of older kids, the program continues to grow. Dr. Lowery couldn’t be more pleased.

“Adolescents are a great population to work with,” she says. “They’re at a stage of life when they often need very specific guidance and treatment, and yet they are so underserved.”

What it takes to treat teens

How did Dr. Lowery embark on this twisty, sometimes treacherous path of teen health?

“I’ve always mentored young people and chaperoned for many teen activities,” she says. “I really liked being involved with the kids, and I just kind of parlayed that into a career. People ask how I can do this. That’s easy. I love it. ”

It began in residency, where she did so much mentoring that a classmate asked if she had chosen the adolescent medicine fellowship.

“I hadn’t given a thought at that point to a specific path,” Dr. Lowery recalls. “But as soon as she asked me, I realized it was awesome. And that’s what I did.”

Fellowships are an intense, post-med-school-graduation, deep-dive into a single area of medicine. Dr. Lowery invested an additional three years of training in the diagnostics, treatment and psychology of adolescent health. Think reproductive health, substance abuse, sexually transmitted infections, self-harm behaviors and body issues.

Few up-and-coming doctors share her love for the specialty.

It’s real: The adolescent developmental stage

Teens may look and act like young adults, but as Dr. Lowery explains, they are far from it.

The brain is not fully formed until the early to mid-20s. The frontal lobe—the area of the brain where  judgment, reasoning and impulsivity reside—is still developing. Obviously, that ongoing development process can affect behaviors.

Adolescence is a full-blown developmental stage, just like the newborn stage. The adolescent stage is marked by clear biological, hormonal and brain-based advancements in skill and reasoning.

For young men, this stage is slower to progress than in young women. That’s why teen males can be particularly susceptible to risky behaviors that adults can’t fathom. That young man’s brain literally hasn’t yet finished developing the switch that would turn on the warning light and help him make a better decision.

Yet because he looks like an adult and is approaching that age, we mistakenly believe he should have known better.

The Adolescent Medicine Clinic sees about equal numbers of male and female patients, in their teens and up to age 22. For both sexes, regular check-ups provide valuable opportunities to check on behavioral health, self-esteem issues and social situations (such as bullying) that can lead to serious health risks like substance abuse, depression, eating disorders and even suicide.

The clinic also offers primary care for teens and young adults, Dr. Lowery says, giving its doctors regular opportunities to check in with their patients and see where they can help, both physically and emotionally.

“We are very picky about our staff,” she says. “To work here, you must truly have an appreciation for this age group. We deal with very sensitive, potentially life-altering issues. There is no room for judgment.

“We need to be the place where young people will share what’s going on in their health, especially things they will hide from others.”