Certified child life specialists: Adding major value to the healthcare delivery team

We must remember the important role of an integrated, multidisciplinary, healthcare delivery team as we continue the transition toward value-based care and reform of our care delivery system.

In the pediatric setting, in particular, Certified Child Life Specialists are often under-recognized even though they play a critical role in providing care for children and their families and help hospitals achieve their goal of improving the lives of children.

When a child requires hospitalization because of seriously illness or injury, it can be a painful and stressful time for the entire family. Often, confusion and fear haunt the child, parents, siblings and other family members all along the treatment path, creating anxiety that can worsen as the treatment itself may result in additional suffering for the child before things get better.

By providing evidence-based, developmentally- and psychologically-appropriate interventions, Certified Child Life Specialists can greatly ease the distress that children and their families experience at these critical moments. From therapeutic play, procedural support, education and preparation, to family advocacy, and, if necessary, bereavement support, these professionals help meet the psychosocial, emotional and developmental needs of children and their families, resulting in an overall better healthcare experience.

Studies demonstrate that these services also result in cost savings by reducing length of stay and decreasing sedation needs. They also improve the ratings families give about their hospital care experience. Specifically, child life interventions have been shown to be instrumental in calming children's fears and in having a quantifiably positive impact on the care of children in imaging departments.

As a Certified Child Life Specialist, I have worked with many children and their families on a variety of issues. One case in particular was a seven-year-old girl who was admitted for a Ventriculoperitoneal (VP) shunt revision. The little girl became extremely withdrawn, sad, and disengaged when the anesthesiologist came in the room to discuss the procedure and risks with the parents.

The child's nurse called upon the Certified Child Life Specialist to come and determine what might be going on. Using a puppet, the Certified Child Life Specialist was able to calm the child, talk to her, and find out that the child incorrectly thought the anesthesia was going to put her to sleep for seven years. The specialist clarified that the shunt was going to last seven years, not the anesthesia, and this made the child feel better. With the training experience of the Certified Child Life Specialist, the care team was able to correct this misconception, help the parents feel better and ease the child's fear and anxiety before she went under anesthesia.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has endorsed the important role of the Certified Child Life Specialist, and U.S. News & World Report has recognized that expertise in child life is a vital variable in the success of pediatric care and is considered a key quality indicator in hospital rankings.

At such a crucial time, the child life professional can be that partner and advocate that provides the calming presence for children and their families that is often missing. By helping people understand and cope with these bewildering events, Certified Child Life Specialists will ultimately help hospitals deliver better outcomes and reduce costs, all while improving patient and family satisfaction.

Kristin Maier, MS, CCLS, is the Director of Child Life, Music Therapy and Patient Academics at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital. She is currently the president of the Association of Child Life Professionals.

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