Throwing Teens a Line

Photo: Linda Cicero

“Teen health line, this is a nurse.” It’s 3:30 and school is out—prime time for the Teenage Health Resource Line, an anonymous, confidential and free hotline service provided to area teens by Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. From 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., 365 days a year, pediatric nurses are available to answer questions ranging from how to treat a sports injury to how to handle feelings of same-sex attraction.

The hotline was conceived 10 years ago after a Palo Alto school district study showed that teens needed more health information. Palo Alto High School nurse Linda Lenoir suggested establishing a phone-in service at Packard, where director of community and physician relations Terry O’Grady was mulling over a similar idea. “We knew adolescents were underserved,” O’Grady says. “Teens are reluctant to seek out help.” With hospital and donor funding, the hotline was added to Packard’s existing pediatric telecenter, then primarily a resource for parents.

Callers—usually high school students but some as young as 10—most frequently ask about health issues and sexual practices. O’Grady says the staff is sometimes surprised at how little teens know about normal physical development. On the other hand, callers often bring up topics such as sex readiness and the morning-after pill—“questions much beyond any sex education program,” says Susan Gray-Madison, manager of the pediatric telecenter. Rather than give advice, nurses provide factual information, ask if callers have discussed the issue with their parents, and often refer them to local organizations that can provide assistance.

The teen health line receives 250 to 500 calls per month—a number that varies directly, O’Grady says, with the amount of promotion that can be done. Brochures, wallet-sized cards and a 30-second MTV spot encourage calls from San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. O’Grady expected girls to be the primary users of the hotline and is pleasantly surprised that 36 percent of callers are boys. “I think that really speaks to the [program’s] confidential nature,” she says.

Administrators also attribute the program’s effectiveness to the operators: registered nurses with an average of 15 years’ experience, rather than peer counselors. The professional help is not lost on the teens who use the hotline—40 percent are repeat callers.

For assistant nurse manager Ruth Loveless, who has worked in the pediatric telecenter for two years, perhaps the best measure of success is the relief she hears over the line. “Most of the time,” she says, “I feel like I’ve helped.”