Dispelling childhood fears about medicine and the hospital

The following blog post was written by Derek Oxley,  2013-2014 Work Study (Queen’s University) Curatorial Assistant

Although my own recollections are a bit hazy, my mother will attest to the fact that when I had to be taken to the doctor as a small child I behaved like a perfect hellion: stomping feet and throwing toys and acting out in a way I would never do anywhere else. More recently as an adult, I spent an afternoon babysitting my cousin’s toddler while he took his eldest in for a check-up. What started as a pleasant afternoon was soon filled with unexplained tears and unpredictable mood changes. My cousin later told me that my nephew had admitted to “being afraid of having to go to the doctor when HE got older” (having apparently forgotten that he had been to the doctor before). Both my case and that of my nephew stemmed from a fear of the unknown, namely, that which goes on in the confusing world of doctors and hospitals. My curiosity was piqued and I set out to discover whether there were any good ways of dispelling childhood fears about medicine.

Children from the rough ages of 3 to 7 are usually apprehensive about going to a doctor or the hospital- they have no understanding of the various tools and tests and may form fearful misconceptions.[1] Blood pressure machines may be stealing their blood, needles are painful, laboratories may be growing monsters, etc…[2] Younger children fear separation from their parents and can see hospitalization as a punishment, while those in an older group may fear pain, loss of control, and damage to their bodies.[3] At any age, a familiarity with the tools and environments of the medical world may ultimately help eliminate these fears.

In the late 1960s the Fisher Price company released its famous Medical Kit full of bright, plastic toy versions of a check-up kit.

Toy medical kit by Fisher Price, 1977, Collection of the Museum of Health Care 008056002
Toy medical kit by Fisher Price, 1977, Collection of the Museum of Health Care 008056002

Aimed at children ages 3 and up, this set, and other toys like it, would offer the kind of fun familiarity with a basic doctor kit that may have helped allay fears when children were faced with the real thing. Currently, various versions of the Medical Kit exist, including a Dora the Explorer model. Disney has its own similar toy called Doc McStuffins Medical Bag which, along with the assortment of brightly coloured tools, comes with a small plush lamb as a pseudo-patient.[4] Playing doctor is a great step towards alleviating fears, however, as useful as toys like these are they may not be enough to completely instill a sense of knowledge or comfort. That requires a  more involved experience.

In the last few decades, many hospitals have created programs aimed at quelling the fears young children have of medical treatment. In the early 1980s the Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena ran a program called “Let’s Visit the Hospital” aimed at introducing 4 year-olds to the hospital environment.[5] The program often booked pre-school groups. The first step was a slide show of day to day procedures in the hospital, followed by the children ‘playing doctor’ with mock booster shots and real stethoscopes and blood pressure straps. Finally, the preschoolers were introduced to other children who were in the paediatrics ward to show them that it was a safe place.[6]

Teddy Bear Hospitals (TBH) are another way in which the medical community is reaching out to children. Many hospitals throughout the UK, Australia and North America have participated in these programs since the early 2000s, and many more  TBHs have run in school gymnasiums and community centres.[7]

Participants at the Museum's annual Teddy Bear Hospital Program (February 2014)
Participants at the Museum’s annual Teddy Bear Hospital Program (February 2014)

The program set up by the International Federation of Medical Students Association (IFMSA) starts with children talking to a nurse about illnesses and hospitals. The children are encouraged to ‘select’ a disease for which their teddy bear will be treated, then they play games in a simulated ‘waiting room’ until it’s their teddy’s turn to see the doctor. The children help with the physical exam and mock x-rays of the teddy, after which non-invasive treatments (band-aids, tensor wrap, etc) are applied and a ‘prescription’ is filled out, often for candy.[8] Results from these programs have been very positive. By associating the medical world with a comfortable and familiar totem, children can reduce their fears of the unknown medical world.[9]

Could games and toys have a similar effect as an education program? Fully overcoming fears can take years for some children, and a good way to continue treating fears for children over 7 may be further exposure to medically-themed games, toys and even artwork.[10] Games like Medical Monopoly teach some improvisation skills and share some tidbits of medical information, and the infamous Operation is a training ground for hand-eye coordination, while all the while increasing the positive association the players have towards medical environments and issues.

Operation game by Milton Bradley and Somerville Industries Ltd, 1965, Collection of the Museum of Health Care 008045001
Operation game by Milton Bradley and Somerville Industries Ltd, 1965, Collection of the Museum of Health Care 008045001

Searching online I was also surprised to find a wealth of simple, medically oriented games aimed at teaching and training. One website in particular, Purpose Games, created by David Andersson, is an interactive website which allows free access to hundreds of memory games. Timed games ask the player to learn and name various medical diagrams, or make connections between medical concepts.  People are encouraged to submit new games to increase the wealth.[11] Another such site is Hospital Games, which has over a dozen free games ranging in subjects like nursing, dentistry, and surgery. One of the more challenging games is the Mad DNA Laboratory in which the player mixes sequences of coloured vials together to create animals in a cartoon laboratory.

Children and adults ages 8 and older would benefit from playing the multi-player board game Pandemic, released in 2008 to wide acclaim.[12]

Participants playing Pandemic at the Museum's first Board Game Night (November 2014).
Participants playing Pandemic at the Museum’s first Board Game Night (November 2014).

Pandemic is a cooperative board game in which players assume the roles of Centres for Disease Control (CDC) medical professionals including a doctor, a scientist, and an operations expert. The game teaches cooperation, critical thinking, and introduces the audience to the more mature, serious topic of pandemics.

In the end, it seems clear that introducing young children to the world of medicine is an important step in their development. Doctors and hospitals are a regular part of life, and it’s important to let kids know that it’s alright to feel unwell, and help them understand the medical processes they will all have to go through. Between toddler toys, hospital programs, and online sources, there are a lot of good places to start.

     [1] http://www.chop.edu/visitors/before-your-visit/preparing-your-child.html

     [2] http://search.proquest.com.proxy.queensu.ca/docview/153317028

     [3] http://www.chop.edu/visitors/before-your-visit/preparing-your-child.html

     [4] http://www.disneystore.com/play-sets-more-toys-doc-mcstuffins-doctor-bag-play-set/mp/1343799/1000265/#longDesc

     [5] http://search.proquest.com.proxy.queensu.ca/docview/153317028

     [6] http://search.proquest.com.proxy.queensu.ca/docview/153317028

     [7] http://www.ifmsa.org/Databases/Official-Projects-Activities-of-IFMSA/Teddy-Bear-Hospital

     [8] http://www.ifmsa.org/Databases/Official-Projects-Activities-of-IFMSA/Teddy-Bear-Hospital

     [9] http://www.ucl.ac.uk/teddy-hosp/tbh_barnsley_paper.pdf

     [10] http://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/CFS/CFS-169-W.pdf

     [11] Purpose games.com

     [12] http://zmangames.com/product-details.php?id=1246

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3 thoughts on “Dispelling childhood fears about medicine and the hospital

  1. It is very common among the children that they fear of medical treatment as most of the time they undergo through such situation when they are in pain. That is the only thing which make them afraid of medical treatment, but by the use technology tools we can make the treatment easy and comfortable for them so that they don’t feel afraid of the medical instruments.

  2. Great post. I strongly believe that a bridge into fighting this problem with the fear are innovations in the gadgets world where you can measure your own healthcare. I am an adult and still I am affraid of doctors – the reason – maybe it comes naturally – because I don’t trust my body to nobody. I hope very much in a futre RIP Steve Jobs to finish this mission. Thank you!

    1. Hi Carolina,
      Thank you for your comment. Happy to hear you enjoyed the post. It sounds like technology can do quite a bit to help bridge that gap and make people more comfortable with their doctors and medical procedures. I wouldn’t be surprise if in the near future we’ll be able to access our records and check in with our doctor without having to go to the doctor’s office.

      Thank you for reading our blog!

      Diana Gore, Museum of Health Care Communications and Finance Coordinator

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