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  • Case study

Playtime, just what the doctor ordered

Quality of Life Observer

- Healthcare

- Sep 30 2014

Playtime isn’t only about games and giggles. Dedicated hospitals provide specialized play services to young patients to ease worries, address phobias and, in some cases, even shorten hospital stays.

As advances in modern medicine increase infant survival rates and help children with challenging diagnosis live better and longer, the number of “medically complex” children in hospitals also rises. These children, currently totaling roughly three million in the US and rising steadily by 5 percent each year, often find themselves in the hospital for days, weeks or months. While hospitals can be a frightening place for anyone, the anxiety and fear that children experience can lead to phobias or non-compliant behavior. With roughly 80 percent of pediatric patients and their families reporting at least some level of traumatic stress while in the hospital, there is a clear need for play services.

A study conducted in the UK reveals that children with access to play services recover faster and have a reduced need for general anesthesia in some cases. Nadine Harding, head of Specialist play services at Birmingham Children’s Hospital links these results, as well as a lowered readmission rate, to the fact that play services make children more receptive and compliant with care directives.

Simplifying the communication process

Often times, hospitalized children become scared, anxious or even angry about their situation.

These emotions can complicate communication between a child and their doctor, nurse or even family members. Trained specialists use play techniques to help children understand information, gain a sense of control and prepare for potentially frightening procedures. For example, Emily and Tommy, puppets at UK’s Birmingham Children’s Hospital, are used to facilitate communication with children. “The non-threatening and simple nature of puppets can be helpful when explaining procedures or medical terms,” says Harding. “In some circumstances, doctors can use the puppet to conduct basic exams, such as checking for pain in a child’s abdomen.”

Puppets and playtime aren’t only for the children, according to Harding, pointing out the benefits that parents and family members experience. “Much of the information you get in hospitals is communicated at a doctor level and tends to be very medical and very intense,” she says. However, while play specialists explain procedures or illnesses to children in a less formal setting, parents tend to pick up things they may have missed or not heard with the doctor.

For every patient, for every situation

What works for one child doesn’t necessarily work across the board. Play specialists are constantly challenged to find alternative ways of communicating based on a child’s individual needs, such as using pictures or drawing. In other cases, some hospitals designate a child’s room as a “safe zone”, banning procedures that could cause anxiety or pain. Other institutions allow play specialists to accompany a child into the operating room to explore and familiarize themselves before a procedure.

“It is incredibly important for play facilities to be geared to every type of patient,” says Harding. Playgrounds, for example should be designed to allow access to all patients, whether they can walk, are in a wheelchair or bedbound. “Even our puzzles are equip with magnets so bedbound children can play without the pieces falling out,” she says.

A way to give back

Normalizing play – or basic activities that are not centered on an individual care plan – is an important element in play services as well. Volunteer play facilitators engage with patients or even the siblings of patients, who spend a considerable amount of time in the hospital through arts and crafts, toys and puzzles. “Our volunteers have many motivations,” says Lisa Robinson, volunteer lead at Birmingham Children's Hospital. “Often times they are former patients or relatives of former patients who wish to make a difference in the lives of children and families. Volunteering is their way of ‘giving back’ to the hospital for the care either they or their relatives received.”

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