The Patient Experience: Making the Leap from Pediatric-to-Adult IBD care

Moving away for school. A future career. Relationships. Discovering your identity. Switching from a pediatric IBD care team to adult providers. All while living with a chronic illness. This is the stark reality for young adults living with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Juggling all these major life milestones and having to get acclimated to new physicians while taking the lead on disease management is often met with anxiety and worry from young patients, their parents, and caregivers. IBD is a family disease. Even if only one person in the household personally lives with the issue, the disease impacts each person.

This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from patients and caregivers who have lived through the experience and from pediatric GI’s about how best families can be supported through the changes to make them as seamless as possible for everyone involved.

Input from those who have made the switch

Aging out of pediatric doctors can be a stressful time for everyone involved. Let’s start with input from those with IBD who have made the switch along with what some parents and caregivers had to say.

  • Start researching doctors early. Do your homework and see what insurance providers accept and what hospitals they are affiliated with.
  • Ask your current pediatric doctors for recommendations/referrals.
  • Before the first visit make sure the adult GI has received copies of medical records.
  • Have healthcare proxy and power of attorney papers on file.
    • “I just turned 20, but I’m still in pediatrics and plan on staying until I graduate from college, as that is the norm at my hospital. However, as an adult in peds, I found it important to have healthcare proxy and power of attorney papers on file so my mom can still help me and if something were to happen like while I’m away at school she is able to get information. I broke my arm this past fall and my body went into such shock that I couldn’t give the hospital any information. My friends were with me and contacted my mom, but because I was 19, the hospital couldn’t even confirm to her that I was in the building. This was a wake-up call. We started thinking about, “what if this was my IBD?” and decided it was necessary to have the papers on file just in case. I still ask my mom to be involved in my care, but we both have the understanding that I have the final say.”- Anna

Navigating the switch through college

Heidi was diagnosed with Crohn’s when she was 9. She’s now 41. When she reflects on the transition from a pediatric doctor to one who treats adults, she recalls the process being fairly simple and a change she welcomed with open arms.

“The best thing was being talked to directly and my opinions mattered more in my later teenage years with the new doctor. Of course, my parents had my best interests at heart, but appointments were so frustrating as a young girl. Another reason for the seamless transition was that my new doctors were amazing. I switched at 18 and then again at 22 when I graduated college and moved away from home. My care team listened to me and saved my life. I know I’m lucky to have found such a wonderful team of doctors.”

Katie wishes there had been a support group (even online) for teenagers back when she was phased into an adult GI. She says when she was diagnosed with IBD at age 15, she often felt uncomfortable discussing her symptoms and didn’t feel her pediatric GI was that great with kids.

“I felt detached from my GI until I was in my 20s and had the confidence to advocate for myself. I was so lost and refused to tell classmates what was wrong with me for fear of being made fun of. I ended up missing so much school I decided to drop out, get my GED, and go straight to college. It was a terrible time to be honest.”

The difference in pediatric vs. adult care

“The transition happened quite fast as I was being referred to an adult surgeon for my complications that the pediatric team were not experienced or educated enough to treat for Crohn’s. I was thrown in the water with no guidance when I started seeing physicians who treated adults with Crohn’s. The pediatric GI team would dumb some things down for me and make my problems not seem “as bad.” As soon as complications started arising, they threw the towel in and basically told me they couldn’t help me anymore and would be better off seeing a care team with more experience with my symptoms and complications.”-Chrissy

Natasha experienced the transition about 13 years ago. Her pediatric team helped her choose an adult GI. And the guidance didn’t stop there.

“My pediatric GI told me who she wanted for me and then went with me to interview the doctors in the adult team. Once I chose, my pediatric GI attended every appointment with me until we all agreed I was ready to move into the next step of my care, which luckily was quickly. And the two doctors stayed in communication. My advice—be open with your doctor.”

Natasha recommends asking yourself the following questions to help streamline the process and make it less nerve-wracking.

  • What are you looking for in your next step of care?
  • What are you looking for during the transition process?
  • What is important to you in a physician?

Do your own research

“I had an AMAZING pediatric GI when I switched, and I just went with who she recommended. Looking back, I wish I did my research because he is not who I would have chosen for myself. I would recommend doing your own research and make sure whoever you find is willing to work with you and thoroughly go through your medical history and all your results. Too many doctors seem to just think they know everything, but we know our bodies best and need to have a medical team who lets us advocate for ourselves.”-Danielle

Jennie has lived with IBD for nearly 20 years. She has a PhD, works in IBD care, and recognizes she has the privilege of a strong support network and insurance. As an IBD psychologist she recognizes how difficult the system and transition can be for everyone involved.

“I was diagnosed with IBD at 12 and transitioned to adult care around age 18. I was extremely sick at the time and ended up having a proctocolectomy within months of transitioning. I think the biggest things for me were the notable shift in culture between the peds and adult world, and the insurance pieces. It’s so much for kids and families. Lastly. I’ve noticed the transition is nuanced for my parents who were so good at being my advocates, they will still offer to call the doctor if I tell them I am not feeling well, and they have a tough time not having the same significant role they did when I was younger.”

Allie was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when she was 12. Her mom attended all her appointments until she turned 18, and only stopped going then because she was out of state for college and seeing a pediatric GI there until she turned 22. Allie’s mom kept a medical binder of all her procedures, lab results, and details about her patient journey. She says when she phased out of pediatrics and started taking matters into her own hands, she found the binder her mom made to be beneficial—Allie found herself referring to it when she couldn’t remember everything.

“What helped the transition the most was going to appointments on my own when I turned 18. I felt more prepared to speak for myself when I switched to an adult GI.”

Allie’s mom also inspired her to ask the tough questions. After witnessing how her mom spoke up to doctors it empowered her to speak up and stop minimizing her struggles. By watching how her mom handled appointments, it inspired Allie to write down all her questions and concerns before doctor appointments, so she doesn’t forget anything.

“My mom asked me what fights I wanted her to fight for me and what I wanted to do myself. She guided me on what I might need to ask about when I had no clue—even as an adult she still offers to help call insurance companies to fight authorization battles. She gave me space to live my life when I turned 18. She worried, but she never hounded me for updates (are you taking your medication?, how are you feeling? Are you eating ok?”…but she always conveyed support (both my parents did) when I needed it most she showed up.”

Sari recommends young adults with IBD to ease into taking control of their care as early as possible.

“Things like refilling your own meds, scheduling your own appointments, and driving yourself to appointments goes a long way when it comes to learning how to stay organized and advocate for yourself. You don’t want to be doing all those things for the first time when you go to college or a start a new job—too many scary or unknown things at once!”

Check out what pediatric GI’s have to say about bridging the gap and ensure continuation of care.

Dr. Sandra Kim, MD, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Director, Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, says, “Transition is the preparation process while the young adult/teens are still under the care of the pediatric team. Transfer of care is the actual “handoff” when the young adult moves from the pediatric GI team to the adult GI providers. Teens want independence but struggle with disease knowledge and self-management skills. Therefore, the pediatric GI team needs to help the teen (and the family, too!) by being active listeners, communicators, and educators. The healthcare team also should utilize things like transition tools.”

Dr. Kim went on to say that GI doctors need to assess how teens are doing on the road to greater independence and that shared decision-making helps build partnerships between adult and pediatric GI providers.

For the adult GI team:

  • Collaborate with the peds team in the initial stages of care transfer.
  • Anticipate existing gaps of knowledge and self – management skills
  • Prepare for more time during appointments for questions, additional education, and working with the family. Parents need help during this time of care transfer, too!
Woman patient signing medical documents discussing medication treatment with african american practitioner in hospital office during clinical consultation. Doctor physician explaining disease symptoms

Dr. Jonathan D. Moses, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Director, Pediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program, UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, explained how his hospital has a multidisciplinary pediatric IBD team that engages patients in a Health Maintenance Education Clinic as early as 11 years old.

“This allows them to build up the self-management skills needed for a successful transition to adult GI, when they are ready. In lieu of this resource, parents can engage their health care providers about ways to get their child more involved in their care and provide them with the autonomy, and support, to take over aspects of their care over a period of time.”

Dr. Hilary Michel, MD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, says a successful transition from pediatric to adult care requires that young folks have developed the knowledge and skills needed to understand and manage their disease independently.

“This knowledge and skill is not gained overnight, and ideally should be obtained gradually. Transfer to adult care should be planned in advance, when a patient is feeling well and has a good grasp on their disease management, so there are no gaps between peds and adult care. Parents and families can help the process by allowing teens to speak with their healthcare providers alone, gradually share care responsibilities, encourage them to learn about their disease, and highlight their successes.”

How this works in real time:

  • Patients can listen and participate in their visits.
  • Set goals with your healthcare team and work toward them, ask questions and share your opinions.
  • Healthcare teams can help by providing a non-judgmental space, listening attentively, encouraging young people’s success, engaging patients in decisions, checking for understanding, getting to know patients as people (talk about school, friends, activities), and connecting patients with resources

Dr. Whitney Marie Sunseri, MD, Pediatric Gastroenterologist, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, says “I always encourage a step-wise approach to transitioning to the adult world. I encourage patients to know their diagnosis, what medications they take and when, to recall their last scopes, and to be able to report all of their symptoms without the assistance of their parents. Then as they get older, and closer to the time of transition, I encourage them to look into different adult doctors. I give recommendations as well.”

Dr. Sunseri advises caregivers and patients to be proactive and look at reviews of doctors and who is in their insurance network. She says the most important visit is the one where patients follow up with her after their first adult visit to make sure it was a good fit and that they are in good hands.

“It’s bittersweet watching these children grow in so many ways and head off into the hands of another provider. Your heart swells with pride and breaks at the same time.”

Resources and Communities of Support

Sneha was diagnosed with Crohn’s at age six. She’s now 23 and still figuring out what her future will look like with IBD. As she grew up, she couldn’t find a community of young adults. This inspired her to create Generation Patient and the Crohn’s and Colitis Young Adults Network.

“Peer support during this transition is critical, so we host seven virtual community meetings. We have hosted over 250 of these peer support meetings over the last two years. I think peer support should be seen as essential during this transition period and it has been the best thing to come out of living with IBD.”

Generation Patient: Instagram–@generationpatient

CCYN: Instagram–@ccyanetwork

Join the American College of Gastroenterology Thursday, May 4, 2022 at Noon and 8 pm ET for a discussion about “Empowering Patients Through the Transition of Care in IBD”. Click here to register.

ImproveCareNow (Instagram: @ImproveCareNow)

The Circle of Care Guidebook for Caregivers of Children and Adolescents Managing Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Youth + Parent Resources

National Council of College Leaders

Transitioning GI Patients from Pediatric to Adult Care

Transitioning from Pediatric to Adult IBD (This includes a helpful breakdown of ages and a checklists for independence, health, and daily activities)

IBD Support Foundation

Transitioning a Patient With IBD from Pediatric to Adult Care

IBD is Not Your Fault

You did nothing to cause your diagnosis or your disease. Read that again. It’s not your fault. No matter what you may see on social media or hear from friends or family, those of us with Inflammatory Bowel Disease did not live “incorrectly” or do anything damaging that “sparked” our chronic, autoimmune issues to come to life.

I was incredibly disheartened recently by a post on Instagram that in so many words claimed that bad habits in life led to a man’s Crohn’s disease. He made blanket statements about how medication and surgery are not necessary and that it just takes a long time and reflection to reverse the damage he caused on himself after years of smoking, binge drinking, etc. The post was not only on his own feed, but also shared by a community IBD page with more than 8,000 followers. After days of endless comments from those angered by his assertions and claims, the post was taken down and the patient “advocate” made his Instagram private, but the damage was already done.

Hold up—what’s with the blame game?!

You may wonder why patient advocates like me get their feathers ruffled by claims like this. I can tell you why. I, along with so many of my counterparts in the IBD community, work tirelessly to educate and inform not only those with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis about the patient journey, but also caregivers and friends. When misinformation is disseminated it sets the clock back, bigtime. It further stigmatizes our illness, especially when the false statements are said by someone who lives with IBD. Not only does it hurt those grieving and trying to come to terms with their lifelong diagnosis, but it’s a direct attack on those diagnosed as pediatrics and those who did everything by the book (ate well, exercised, got lots of sleep, managed stress, etc.) and STILL got IBD.

If there was a magic bullet or diet that helped “cure” or manage all of us, we would do it. If there was a way to prevent IBD, people would do it. Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis aren’t like lung cancer, which is sometimes caused by smoking or diabetes which is sometimes caused by being overweight or liver disease which can be caused by excessive drinking. IBD is complicated and mysterious. There is not a behavior or habit that is associated with possibly “getting it” one day. The two known factors—hereditary and environmental—leave much to the imagination. I personally have no family history. I was a picture of health until the two months leading up to my Crohn’s diagnosis in July 2005. It felt as though a light switch went off and my world went from being healthy and able-bodied to being chronically ill.

You did nothing wrong

If you’re reading this and wondering what you did to cause your disease, the answer is nothing. If you’re reading this as a parent and feel as though you could have fed your child less processed food or breastfed them instead of giving formula or shouldn’t have had your child vaccinated, please stop believing that. I know we all want a reason. We all want answers and some clarity as to the why—but, at the end of the day, does it really matter? Focusing on the why doesn’t help us focus on the how. HOW are we going to get through this? HOW are we going to manage our disease and live a full life? HOW are we going to cope during flares and periods of remission? HOW are we going to navigate the unknown and thrive? HOW are we going to find the right treatment plan? HOW are we going to target our triggers and learn what to avoid? Focus on what you can tangibly do to improve your patient journey and less on the coulda, shoulda, woulda’s, because just like each case of IBD is unique, so is each back story.

Here I am as a little girl. Long before being diagnosed at age 21. This little girl did nothing to deserve or cause Crohn’s disease.

Stop the finger pointing and the blame game. Stop making the medical community out to be the bad guys and the adversary. Stop acting as though those who depend on medication and need surgery failed in any way.

Start collaborating with your care team and finding physicians who listen and genuinely care about the approach you wish to take to manage and treat your disease, while also understanding that a holistic and “med-free” approach may not be feasible for your type of disease process. Start getting involved and educating yourself about how IBD manifests and the complicated nature of not only Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, but also the extraintestinal manifestations and mental health aspect that are often not talked about. Even if you’re on medication or have had surgery you can still take whatever measures make you feel better in a complementary way. It’s not all black and white. There’s so much gray area. You can be on a biologic and still try any “elimination diet” you’d like. It’s just a matter of doing what works best for you, without pointing the finger or demeaning others in our community. Start connecting with those who live your reality and lift you up, rather than make you feel like you’re taking the easy way out.

This is 21-year-old me. There were moments where I felt very sick while on this Spring Break trip my senior year of college in March 2005. I attributed the abdominal pain to traveling and eating different food in the Bahamas. Little did I know four short months later I’d receive my Crohn’s diagnosis.

I know that if my 21-year-old self came across posts on social media claiming I caused my Crohn’s and that I could “heal my gut” on my own, I may have believed it. I can tell you nearly 16 years into this, I know without a doubt that is not the case. I am not a failure for taking medication, needing surgery, or trusting my physicians. I credit my 5.5 years of remission to being a compliant, proactive patient who believes in science, educating myself on the facts, and realizing that this disease is bigger than me and a constant learning process. I don’t need to know my why because I’ve done a damn good job of discovering my how’s and you can, too.