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Why and how do healthcare professionals use play in clinical practice?

We explored what healthcare professionals in different roles and different countries understood to be important and useful about the role of play in paediatric practice. According to healthcare professionals, play in clinical practice can be used to communicate and build relationships with paediatric patients and thus potentially help provide patient-centred care.

We were curious about… how healthcare professionals use play in hospitals

Play is widely recognised as an important and beneficial aspect of children’s healthcare in hospitals, and many different kinds of healthcare professionals use play in their work. In some countries there are child life or play specialists who are trained to provide therapeutic play for patients; often, other paediatric clinicians (such as doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, etc.) will also employ playful approaches, but generally without formal training around play and its relationship to children’s health. We wanted to explore what healthcare professionals in different roles and different countries understood to be important and useful about the role of play in paediatric practice.

And so we did… an international Delphi survey

The Delphi technique is a process of surveying a panel of experts multiple times to generate a consensus, or collective view, of a given topic of interest. For this research, we reached out to paediatric healthcare professionals from around the world and recruited participants from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK. Of 45 total participants, professional roles included play specialists, dieticians, doctors, nurses, occupational and physiotherapists, social workers, psychologists, and teachers. Participants were sent three rounds of surveys that gathered and consolidated their views on the uses of play in paediatrics, including factors that challenge or facilitate the use of play.

We learned that… healthcare professionals recognise play an important competency in delivering paediatric care

After three survey rounds, we consolidated consensus views from the international, interprofessional group of healthcare professionals who participated in this study.

We established 33 discrete principles for play in hospital, separated into four categories:

  1. Children (e.g. play is a way of creating a sense of normalcy for paediatric patients)
  2. Adolescents (e.g. the use of play and activities for adolescent patients is lacking)
  3. Healthcare professionals (e.g. play can be a way of communicating with paediatric patients)
  4. Organisation (e.g. all healthcare professionals should have access to formal education on integrating play in paediatrics).

Consensus learning objectives about play in hospital were organised into six competencies for healthcare professionals:

  1. Building trusting relationships
  2. Delivering information and increasing understanding
  3. Promoting cooperation and participation
  4. Reducing procedure-related anxiety and pain
  5. Supporting coping and development
  6. Ensuring a professional approach to play

Playful approaches are a useful way for healthcare professionals to provide patient-centred treatment to paediatric patients. These principles and learning objectives will inform future educational initiatives for healthcare professionals around the use and importance of play for children in hospitals.

This research was conducted by PEDAL researchers in partnership with researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

It was published in the journal the European Journal of Pediatrics in 2024. You can read the journal article here.