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Easy cure for doctor phobia

Kay Smith visits an unusual project aimed at getting children to overcome their unwillingness to see their GP. Most youngsters, research has shown, are unlikely to visit their doctor when they feel unwell. And the result is that they tend to miss their local medical practice's attempts to promote better health - whether posters and leaflets or routine checks and advice.

But a project in Fife, the Young Persons' Patient Participation Project, is doing its best to change that. It has managed to entice groups of 12- to 14-year-olds into their local surgeries once a week after school to produce a magazine on health issues aimed at their peers.

In the health education room at Kinghorn Health Centre, project co-ordinator Sharon Bushnell of Fife Healthcare SHS Trust's health promotion department pores over the mock-ups of the latest and third edition of the magazine, Get a Life, with a group of the children. They are pleased with their photo story on bullying, but need to fine-tune the advice on how to tackle the problem.

"Most magazines just say: 'Tell your teacher or your parents.' We want to be more realistic," says 17-year-old Jessica Reid.

So it is decided that possible strategies should include not only telling the guidance teach-er, but also "making new friends" or trying to "ignore the bullies and hope they get bored".

The children are also reviewing articles contributed by the two other groups in the project. One, by the Kirkcaldy Health Centre group, on bereavement, is particularly important, thinks 13-year-old Neil McIntosh. "You need to know about things like that," he says.

Previous issues of Get a Life have tackled alcohol, drugs and sexual health. Now the emphasis is on mental health. The founding group, which meets at St Brycedale Surgery in Kirkcaldy, has written an article to help young people recognise whether they have an eating disorder.

The Kinghorn group agrees that the topic is a must. "Everyone is saying I'm fat. I must go on a diet," says Neil. "Lots of people say to me they're really fat," says 14-year-old Alexandra Mitchell.

Get a Life not only gives participants a role in promoting better health to other young people: it also familiarises them with their general practice. "It's made me aware of its day-to-day business," says Jessica.

One of the key messages that the magazine tries to put across is that children should talk to their doctors. That might seem easy enough to swallow where physical illnesses are concerned - but what about lifestyle or mental health matters or as Neil put it, "boys' stuff"?

One barrier to communication is that most youngsters bring along their parents to a consultation. They do not realise this is, according to the Age of Legal Capacity (Scotland) Act 1991, not obligatory.

Another problem is that the stereotypical image of the family doctor - male, middle-aged and middle-class - dies hard. Get a Life points out that many doctors are women and that youngsters can often contact a woman nurse at a practice.

"All doctors are men," says Alexandra. "I'd rather phone the nurse."

Get a Life, which is written in a personal style and is professionally presented and produced in full colour, is funded until next March by a Scottish Office grant. More than 2,000 copies of the next issue are to be distributed at the beginning of December.

They are sent to each young person on the list of the practices involved and to local schools and community centres.

* For more details of the project and copies of Get a Life, contact Sharon Bushnell, project co-ordinator, Health Promotion Department, Fife Healthcare NHS Trust. Tel: 01592 754355

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