By Rob Fabrizio and Jodi Miller

When COVID-19 first struck and the world went into lockdown in early 2020, one of the few good things about the disease was that children were not as susceptible as adults to the original coronavirus strain. Unfortunately, all of that changed when the Omicron variant made its entrance in late 2021.

During the Omicron wave, the number of children hospitalized with COVID skyrocketed. In January 2022, the hospitalization rate among kids with COVID was the highest reported during the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

At its peak in mid-January, an average of 914 children nationwide were being admitted to hospitals with COVID each day. Moreover, our littlest patients—those under the age of 5 who were not eligible for a vaccine—experienced a major spike in hospitalizations with Omicron, reaching a rate of 14.9 per 100,000 population the week ending Jan. 8, 2022. Suddenly pediatric departments were overflowing and clinical teams were over-extended. Yet their mission was of the highest order—tending to children, society’s most vulnerable patients.

What lessons can be learned from the Omicron wave? It can serve as inspiration for providers to improve comfort and safety in pediatric hospitalization care—and in diagnostic imaging—for all pediatric patients. Hospitals that are prepared to meet the very specific physical, psychological, and emotional needs of children will likely see better outcomes as well.

Set a Soothing Tone

There are several ways providers can ease children’s anxiety and stack the deck in their favor for a positive patient experience. Here are four key ways to enhance the pediatric environment:

Design: Children feel the difference between spaces that are warm and friendly as opposed to ward-like and clinical. Design a space that is welcoming, safe, and even fun. This sets the right tone for a successful pediatric hospital stay. Happy kids have better outcomes. Experts that create hospital spaces say pediatric healthcare spaces need specific design criteria, including lighting, colors, and accessories. Research shows kids prefer warm, inviting colors for corridors in a healthcare setting.

Music: A calming agent, music can make a world of difference when treating young patients. Many hospitals use music to help manage pain without medication, promote comfort and relaxation, and provide procedural support. For example, a recent study in Healio shows that kids get through endoscopy procedures easier when music is played.

Moreover, new research suggests that live music may reduce pain and anxiety in pediatric critical-care patients. The study found that sedated babies on mechanical ventilation that were exposed to live music versus recorded music benefited in multiple ways. They experienced significant heart rate reductions that lasted up to 60 minutes after the music stopped as well as slower breathing and lower blood pressure.

Volunteers: Hospitals that build a dedicated team of volunteers have found they contribute to easing children’s fears and improving outcomes. At Boston Children’s, for example, “volunteers interact with patients, siblings, and families at the bedside, in the playroom or waiting room area to provide opportunities for developmentally appropriate play and socialization which may include holding infants/toddlers, engaging in art, reading, and taking part in structured activities with patients,” notes the website. Volunteers can make a difference that positively impacts on soothing and healing.

Therapy dogs: Kids light up when they have a pet to play with. Pediatric providers can explore ways to launch a dog therapy program. More than a dozen registered therapy dogs and their handlers are part of Mayo Clinic’s Caring Canines program. They make regular visits to various hospital departments. The dogs are a welcome distraction and help reduce the stress and anxiety that can accompany hospital visits. Of course, safety and sanitation are key.

Choose Technology Designed with Kids in Mind

Children are ill at ease when it comes to medical procedures—be it simple injections, minor wounds, or medical imaging. It is quite common for our littlest patients to be uncomfortable, anxious, scared and uncooperative. Today’s providers can alleviate fear in children and prompt better outcomes by using diagnostic imaging technology that is child-friendly:

Portable DR: Digital radiography (DR) units that deliver high-quality images, right at the patient bedside and at a low radiation dose are safest for children. Young patients are more susceptible to the negative effects of radiation dose and low dose and low penetration typically impede image quality. To this end, Fujifilm’s detectors all incorporate proprietary core technologies, designed to maximize sensitivity which in turn improves dose efficiency at ultra-low doses and the resulting image quality compared to conventional designs.

In addition, these detectors take safety a step further incorporating an antibacterial coating to provide an added measure of infection control against hospital-acquired infections. This was always important, but even more so during the Omicron era. Portable equipment is efficient and speedy for techs, but also, mobile equipment keeps kids comfortable. With portable DR units, children don’t need to be transported to the radiology department—an added benefit because kids are easily frightened when they don’t know where that gurney is going!

Finally, the typical clinical look of these machines can frighten children. But DR units, like Fujifilm’s FDR Go Plus, that feature kid-friendly graphic decals ease young patients’ fears prior to the exams—making the job easier on techs and improving the chances of getting a speedy, accurate scan the first time.

Point-of-Care Ultrasound (POCUS): Pain and painful procedures increase fear and anxiety in children—making them uncooperative which impedes the care process. Choose pain-free POCUS whenever possible for diagnosing these most vulnerable patients.

Fujifilm’s Sonosite suite of solutions helps keep little ones relaxed while diagnosing a wide variety of medical issues at the bedside. Consider, for example, Sonosite PX with the new L19-5 high-frequency transducer which is proving to be a game changer in securing vascular access in premature infants, babies and children at many major hospitals. Sonosite PX can be up and running at the bedside in as little as 15 seconds and because the image quality on the L19-5 is so exceptional, it is often used by clinicians to gently guide catheters into the tiniest veins and arteries.

Open MRI: Young children often have great difficulty enduring an MRI, and therefore it can even sometimes call for sedation. While sedating the patient is one way to ensure the scan gets accomplished, it can mean more staff, time, cost, and safety concerns.

Providers can address this problem by choosing wide bore and/or an open design MRI machine that keeps young patients comfortable and help those who fidget to stay still. That means your technologist gets a more accurate scan the first time.

Finally, quiet and calm go together. MRI machines can be terribly loud which children and adults find upsetting. Providers can choose MRI scanners that are engineered to make less audible noise. Fujifilm’s Velocity 1.2T open MRI offers reduced noise scanning and soothing ambient lighting that help kids relax even more.

Put Robust Enterprise Imaging on Your Side

Smart workflow and efficiency also have an impact on comfort and safety. For example, Fujifilm’s pediatric imaging modalities are all supported by the comprehensive, AI-supported Synapse Radiology PACS, which displays and delivers specialized presentations, improved workflow and trusted protection of radiology imaging studies to today’s healthcare organizations.

When hospitals have a strong enterprise imaging strategy in place, care teams are able to see the holistic patient record and offer more efficient, coordinated care. With the Synapse Enterprise Imaging portfolio, and specifically Synapse VNA, all members of the care team are on the same page—which limits confusion and speeds clinical decision-making—making for a smoother experience for parents and children.

What’s more, an advanced server-side PACS solution such as Synapse Radiology PACS enables providers to have custom workflows specifically for pediatric patients, which helps speed workflows. It also means pediatric radiologists can read pediatric scans from anywhere—ensuring swift responses to start treatment sooner. 

Finally, Synapse PACS is designed to boost safety. For example, while a child is sedated and the CT or MR is being performed, radiologists can view images—and receive notifications when newly acquired images become available. These enhanced communication and image preview tools may reduce the time required to keep the child sedated.

The Silver Lining of Omicron

The Omicron wave showed us just how quickly pediatric departments can go from calm to chaotic. With an unexpected influx of sick children, worried parents, harried staffers, and so many unknowns about how the disease affects children long-term—it was a trying time for healthcare providers.

Yet, there is a silver lining to the Omicron wave. It’s a strong reminder—and a new opportunity— to re-think how you can make your Pediatric Department the most comforting and safe place for our most vulnerable patients. When you do, you’ll be ready for anything.

Rob Fabrizio is director of strategic marketing, diagnostic imaging systems at FUJIFILM Healthcare Americas Corp. and Jodi Miller is director of market development at FUJIFILM Sonosite, Inc. Questions and comments can be directed to AXIS Imaging News chief editor Keri Fosrythe-Stephens at [email protected].