By Wendy Sarubbi | May 4, 2015 4:35 pm

Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecologists met in Orlando April 16-18 to explore better ways to treat the physical and societal health challenges of young girls. Attendees and presenters at the 29th annual North American Society for Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology (NASPAG) Clinical & Research Meeting discussed a variety of topics, including the role of physicians in helping young girls maintain a healthy body image.

NASPAG members practice in a unique specialty that focuses on treating conditions of a young girl’s reproductive system. These can include congenital abnormalities, early onset menstruation and hormonal imbalances like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) that can cause patients to gain weight, grow extra body hair and if left untreated can lead to diabetes and heart disease. The conference focused on better treatments for many of those conditions but also explored the role of physicians in helping young women have positive self- images.

“This is a really engaged, diverse group of people who care for girls from birth all the way through adolescence,” said Dr. Judy Simms-Cendan, UCF College of Medicine associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and a NASPAG executive board member. She delivered the conference welcome address, detailing not only the beauty and attractions of Central Florida, but also its commitment to pediatric gynecology. In addition to teaching, Dr. Simms-Cendan practices in the specialty at Winnie Palmer Hospital at Orlando Health.

The conference hosted dozens of talks and workshops, including sessions on the social issues that affect young girls. One session, titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Exploring How Healthcare Providers Can Promote Healthy Body Image in Youth,” encouraged clinicians to be a source of positivity for adolescents during a time where they may have low self-esteem.

Moderator Dr. Megan Harrison from Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario told attendees that during adolescence – when young girls feel pressured to be thin, and frequently compare themselves to models and actresses — physicians need to know how to “foster positive health behaviors” in their patients including eating right and exercise.

She urged physicians to increase their own awareness of the media’s influence on younger girls and encouraged her colleagues not to be afraid to “initiate a dialogue about the impact this type of media has on their lives.”

In addition to Dr. Simms-Cendan, multiple UCF faculty led workshops at the conference, including Dr. Shawn Lawrence from the College of Health and Public Affairs and College of Medicine faculty Dr. Lori Boardman, Dale Vorhees and Dr. Lisa Barkley. Dr. Barkley led a session on the social determinants of health and how living in poverty can reduce choices for young girls. She serves as the college’s assistant dean for diversity and inclusion and practices adolescent, sports and family medicine at UCF Health, the medical school’s physician practice.

“Poverty increases the chances of risky behaviors to get money or even survive,” she said, adding that many of these young women lack positive role models in their communities and suffer from a diminished sense of self-worth.

Dr. Barkley emphasized that in addition to providing healthcare, physicians must be a source of inspiration and encouragement for young women. Such support can boost a young girl’s confidence and sense of competence in making her own decisions. “The biggest thing is to really try and work with the youth and build them up so they can resist some of the influences out there,” she said.

Conference participants also heard about medical trends tied to societal and media practices and pressures. One plenary session dealt with labiaplasty, the surgical removal of parts of a women’s genital area. Increasing numbers of women – and even adolescents – are asking their physicians about the surgery and are opting for it. Some site the reason as wanting more attractive genitals for sexting “selfies,” or a desire to conform to what other women look like.

NASPAG is working to increase research into topics related to adolescent gynecological health. As part of that effort, the conference’s poster session included research by UCF College of Medicine third-year students Anita Patel and Diane Brackett. She worked with Dr. Simms-Cendan and Winnie Palmer Hospital to analyze the attitudes of women about birth control by age group and whether birth control was an appropriate for other purposes – like menstrual suppression. The research found that daughters – no matter what age — largely seem to inherit the attitudes about birth control use from their mothers. The research was part of the College of Medicine’s FIRE (Focused Inquiry Research Experience) project, a two year module required of every M.D. student. “It’s important for the students to see the transition from the FIRE module to presentation at the national level,” Dr. Simms-Cendan said.

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