Three-year old Jack Law used to be so nervous when he went to hospital for regular scans he had to be sedated, only coming round several hours later. This time it was different, and a lot quicker.
He was the first patient in the world’s first “ambient experience” radiology suite, a special room designed to soothe children that opened in August at the Advocate Lutheran General Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois in the United States.
Instead of sterile white light, flowing patterns of yellow, red, purple, green and blue dappled the walls. There were no scary instruments or metal objects in sight. The only machine was a CT, or computed tomography, scan in off-white and soft-yellow tones. An animated film played on the wall.
“He thought he was at the movies and asked for popcorn,” Jack’s mother Cindy said.
Six months after it was opened, the new radiology room has resulted in lower doses of radiation in young patients, because fewer re-scans are needed, doctor John Anastos said.
“We have very tangible results,” he said.
The new radiology room is still on trial but the hospital hopes to publish the results of its use soon in a medical journal, justifying the additional investment and giving doctors arguments for extending the use of such soothing surroundings.
The effort to allay fear begins in the waiting room where children are eased into the test procedure by putting toys through a miniature, model CT scan. Many children who come to the hospital for a CT scan have tumors or brain abnormalities.
The children choose cartoons or an animation theme and are issued with a kind of smartcard. When they enter the radiology room, they swipe the card over a sensor and the movie appears on the curved walls and ceiling, complete with sound and music.
It made all the difference to Law.
In the past, he used to beg his mother to turn back as they headed for the hospital in their car. “What would break my heart is when he would scream: ’no thank you Mommy, no thank you Mommy, no thank you,’” she said.
This time, instead of panicking and being sedated, Jack remained calm and participated in the procedure.
'More satisfying experience'
Creating an “ambient experience” in a radiology room -- with lights, animations and, in the future, aromas -- adds around 10 percent to the cost of a standard $1.5 million CT scanning room.
But doctors in Park Ridge say the gains are important.
“What we’ve created is not just a room with funny lights, but we’ve created an encounter that is designed to have an effect on the child. Children and parents have a more satisfying experience and fewer children need to be sedated,” Anastos said.
It’s all about reducing fear for a test that requires patients to lie perfectly still. The hospital says that sedation can add six to eight hours of recovery time to a procedure that could be completed in 15 minutes.
“Imagine you’re a three-year-old and you walk into a hospital. Suddenly, things don’t smell very well, and the light is a little too bright,” Anastos said.
“We sedate as many children who are 10 years of age as those who are four,” he said, adding that parents, too, are often frightened, which children never fail to pick up on.
The animations also help the child to hold his or her breath for a few seconds -- cartoon characters demonstrate how they should stay still -- which is important for certain scans.
Although final results have yet to be documented, the company behind the technology says early data suggests the number of patients who need to be sedated has halved.
“It appears there’s a 50 percent reduction in sedation which can turn a one hour process into a five, six or seven hour treatment with a full-time nurse present,” said Jouko Karvinen, chief executive of Philips Medical Systems, which fitted the room along with sister companies that make lighting and semiconductors.
Psychologists helped design the corner-less radiology room, advising designers that children need to get back some control in the hospital environment.
By choosing a theme and changing the lights and animations, by swiping a smartcard, the child feels he or she is in charge again.
An added benefit is that hospital employees enjoy working in the new CT room, and this appears to help keep staff.
“The patients are happier, and we can serve more patients. More patients mean more revenues,” Anastos said.