What the Healthcare Industry Forgets When Treating Pediatric Patients

For years I’ve dreamed of a career as a pediatric psychologist, where I would be able to conduct research on pediatric medical traumatic stress, and be able to advocate for pediatric patients’ mental health. While there have been small strides at informing pediatric health care professionals about how to ease the psychological trauma for children and their families going through medical procedures and other related situations, there is still a long way to go.

Something happened yesterday at work that reminded me why I want to do what I want to do. Currently I work as a clinical research coordinator for a pediatric psychiatrist at a university, and part of my job is to take our study participants to the lab to get their blood drawn. Since all of our participants are children they are generally scared and worried about getting stuck with a needle. As I have had countless needles poked at me throughout my whole life, I can easily empathize with their fear and anxieties.

The participant, yesterday, who I had to take to the lab to get blood drawn told me that while he doesn’t like getting his blood drawn, he has discovered a method that soothes him. He told me he likes when the phlebotomist counts to three, and before I remembered that I am an adult now I said, “Yeah, me too!” way too excitedly. Then, he proceeded to tell me that the last time he had to get his blood drawn he requested his method to the phlebotomist taking his blood, but they failed to comply and ended up surprising him with the needle poke. This story aggravated me so much, because I just couldn’t understand why a health care professional would intentionally ignore a request from a patient that helps them cope with the medical procedure being done to them.

I truly empathized with this boy and his frustrations as we walked to the lab for a hopefully better experience. Once we get there, the kid says again to the person drawing his blood, “Can you please count to three,” and again the phlebotomist adamantly opposes his request. She says, “No! I know how to count to three – you count to three!” I was speechless! That poor boy, without having the years of practice finding his voice in healthcare settings like I have had, just quietly sat back in the chair and relented.

As a kid at the doctor’s office or hospital, you already feel powerless. Therefore, when a child requests something that will return them an ounce of control to make their experience less stressful but then that is denied, it is a severe issue. Now, I am aware that this kid was a subject in our study, and therefore he technically had a choice if he wanted to participate or not and had never experienced any form of medical trauma in the past, but I believe no matter what the pediatric patient’s background is, the medical professional should aim to create the least stressful and psychologically damaging environment as possible.

For the rest of the day I felt guilty for not advocating in that situation. I totally should’ve said something to the phlebotomist, and next time I will. I complained about it to my coworker instead, who couldn’t seem to see the problem, which was additionally frustrating. I understand I am coming at this story from a completely unique perspective of having grown up with needles poked and prodded at me often, but I think that is why my perspective should be listened to the most. I can speak to the genuine fears and feelings of lack of control in the medical environment as a vulnerable child.

While this boy will most likely not be medically traumatized by these two isolated instances, a child with a chronic illness or disability who has to deal with these experiences more regularly might be. I intend in no way to paint a picture that all health care professionals do not know how to properly treat the pediatric population, because I know from personal experience, most absolutely do have the right idea. However, I do believe that knowledge about how medical environments and procedures affect a child psychologically is too often overlooked. As someone who minored in neuroscience, I can confidently state that the mind is physically rooted in our brains, thus it is just as part of our physical being as our heart or legs are, and therefore should be given the same priority as any other physical part of us by all medical professionals – especially to the developing child.

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