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Hospital Checkup | From The Top

Specialists Can Help Create a Child-Friendly Atmosphere

July 06, 1998|CATHY ROBINSON-LEARN | Robinson-Learn is the director of the Child Life Program at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. She has been a member of the hospital's Child Life Program for 10 years

Hospitals can be a scary place for children, whether they are patients or visitors. But as patients, separation from loved ones, isolation from social relationships and the added traumas of intrusive and often painful medical treatment can all contribute to a child's vulnerability.

Studies have shown that well-planned psychological programs can positively influence medical outcomes. Today, many hospitals use a team of experts to prepare children and family members for the hospital. Such programs reduce the emotional strain of hospitalization or visitation on children and their parents.

The core of this team is often composed of Child Life specialists, who are professionals certified by the Maryland-based Child Life Council. Typically, they hold undergraduate and graduate degrees in child development or child life studies.

Before the child even gets to the hospital, parents can take steps to make things easier.

Prior to the visit, parents should gather information from their child's doctor or the hospital medical staff to prepare everyone for what to expect. Be sure to ask such questions as: "What tests will be performed?" "How will they look and feel to my child?" "Can my child wear his own pajamas?" "Who can visit and when?" "Who is caring for my child when I'm not there?"

Make sure you take time to discuss with your child what will take place in the hospital. Explain to him or her how being in the hospital will help, and that being there is not a punishment. Reassure your child that you and other family members will be there as often as possible. Reading books and role-playing as nurses and doctors with your child are other helpful ways to prepare for hospitalization.

Child Life programs have been established at many hospitals to address the emotional, social and developmental needs of hospitalized children. Therapeutic play and activities are provided to children individually and in small groups to help them understand various medical treatments and procedures.

Once the child is in the hospital, the Child Life specialist will talk to the parents, and then the child, to determine the patient's level of understanding.

Next, the specialist will demonstrate how the procedure will be done using actual medical equipment and a preparation book with photographs to walk the family through the procedure.

The specialist will use a preparation doll designed for the patient's specific procedure. Each doll is presented with all the medical equipment (in miniature) that the patient will experience.

During the demonstration, the specialist will identify specific feelings and sensations, and will encourage the parents and the child to handle the medical equipment and demonstrate to each other what will take place.

Finally, the specialist will show the family the room where the procedure will take place and the room where the child will stay.

Many hospitals have playrooms or activity rooms that are equipped with "medical play" toys and dolls, similar to the preparation dolls. In some instances, nurses may be called upon to show a video about a particular procedure, or about a typical stay in the hospital.

During a surgical procedure, a hospital staff member will stay with the child and afterward supports the parents during the separation process.

Many hospitals have liberal visitation policies for parents, often allowing them to sleep in the child's room. Many, however, have stricter visitation policies for other family members and friends, generally restricting visitors below a specified age, depending on the procedure, the area of the hospital and the child.

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For more information, write to the Child Life Council, 7910 Woodmont Ave., No. 310, Bethesda, MD, 20814-3015.

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