(This post was developed in partnership with Aflac.
I was compensated for writing this, but all opinions are entirely my own. #ad)
COVID-19 poses new challenges to quickly build rapport with patients. New restrictions, including increased personal protective equipment (PPE), are placing difficult obstacles to get to know and evaluate them, and this can be especially problematic when working with children.
Therapeutic relationships between medical staff and their patients are important because they provide respect, trust, advocacy, and warmth. As a Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS), I believe that building these relationships with children facing health challenges is most successful and easiest through play.
Why play matters
Play in the hospital is not only vital for patients’ healing and growth, but it also decreases their stress and anxiety. Through play, children can be educated about their illness, upcoming procedures, and treatment. It also provides an emotional outlet for children’s feelings and helps them cope with their hospitalization.
Play increases children’s compliance during their medical care. Staff can fulfill their responsibilities while allowing the child to be more comfortable and willing. This enables staff to work more efficiently while offering the child and family a higher quality of care.
Both play and therapeutic relationships are essential components in pediatric treatment. The implementation of both has become more challenging due to increased barriers to direct patient contact and communication. Challenges like this are nothing new to the healthcare team, but these unusual times require us to think outside the box.
It’s time to get creative!
Helpful tips to connect with patients during COVID-19:
1. Infuse humor in interactions
Children of all ages enjoy humor! It’s healing in nature, can provide a distraction from the medical environment, and create an instant emotional connection. More importantly, it has tangible therapeutic value, providing visible relief from suffering.
Turn COVID-19 barriers into tools! A practical application of humor might include printing pictures of funny people or characters, laminating and adding them to a metal ring to carry and tease kids about who you are under that mask. “Do you think I look like this or this?” Tailor the pictures to the age of the patient and get silly with it.
2. Enter while playing
For some kids, all eyes are focused on the PPE that staff wears when they walk into the room, but it doesn’t have to be that way! Consider holding a ball ready to be thrown, playing with a slinky, or molding Play-Doh while greeting the child. This diversion technique often leads to a less fearful and a more compliant patient who is ready to talk and play. Just remember that anything you take in will need to be cleaned on its way out, so save the Play-Doh for the kids you may be most struggling to connect with and keep toys that are easily cleaned readily available.
My Special Aflac Duck® is also a fantastic resource you can use! Authorized professionals can order ducks, free of charge (simply click here), to give to pediatric cancer patients, age 3+. Children often project their own feelings on their stuffed animals or dolls they are playing with, so by asking about how the duck is doing often will prompt a genuine response about their own feelings. Kids can show how their duck is feeling using one of seven emoji feeling cards included. They can also use the port feature, which helps kids feel they have a friend to share their medical experiences with.
3. Consider a bubble wand
Babies, toddlers and preschoolers love bubbles (and these ages are most at-risk for negative effects of hospitalization)! Using bubbles is a fast and effortless way to grab a child’s attention, while also rapidly communicating that you can be playful, fun, and not scary. Since blowing bubbles while masked isn’t an option, you can choose to invest in an automatic bubble wand, which shoots bubbles out the top at the touch of a button. It might sound ridiculous, but I believe that this is a great investment. You might be surprised at what a hit this will be and how it will help you quickly gain your patients’ trust.
Buy this automatic bubble wand here.
4. Use a clear window mask
Children who are highly staff-phobic may cry or display an extreme amount of fear any time medical staff enters the room. Even if you are not near the patient, a staff-phobic child can be fearful of anyone and everything. Based on my training and personal experience, I’ve found that children who are staff-phobic are typically between 2-4 years old. These kids may need extra help to alleviate their fears. Showing your mouth with a clear window mask is one easy way you can help them be less fearful. If your hospital doesn’t have these on hand, advocate for a few packages to be purchased and stored for those highly staff-phobic patients.
5. Send messages
Can’t go into the patient’s room? Draw or write something on a piece of paper and hold it up to their window. You could message back and forth this way. Older school-age kids and teens might love a personal notebook to share with you. Write messages to each other; a joke or funny drawing can help get this started. You could also print and glue a funny meme inside!
6. Dance your way in!
Simply hit the tunes (age-appropriate) on your phone and get grooving! You will immediately grab your patient’s attention while decreasing their fears.
Kids love to talk about their favorite things. Ask or guess their favorite (fill in the blank), and you will quickly have something to talk about. Find a fun thing you have in common and use it to fuel the rest of your conversation before diving into patient care.
It can be easy to get caught up in all the changes and challenges COVID-19 has dealt us, but we can’t forget the heightened fear and anxiety pediatric patients are now experiencing due to the many increased safety measures!
It does take a little work for medical staff to plan alternative ways to connect with patients; however, understanding that what kids really need to build a therapeutic relationship is simply for you to play with them, it will become an easy task for you to make a habit.
Humor, communicating through messages, playing immediately upon entering, dancing, using favorites, bubbles, and clear window masks are just a few ideas to get started. Now is where the fun part comes in - bring a bit of you to the table!
How do you play? Use your unique interests to spark a genuine therapeutic relationship with your pediatric patients! COVID-19 may stop us from doing many things, but it can’t keep us from playing! After all, play for a hospitalized child is hope and healing.
This article is featured in Aflac’s "Do Good" community newsletter, which spotlights insights, ideas and individuals making a difference in the pediatric cancer community. Click here to sign up to their newsletter.
*My posts are for educational purposes only and do not constitute professional medical advice.