Communication Challenges and Strategies for Patients with Cerebral Palsy

Within the healthcare community, communication between doctor or nurse and the patient is vital to successful outcomes, regardless of the condition being treated or the age of the individual receiving that treatment.

Many medical providers recognise and embrace the need for effective communication in verbal form, but it is often easier said than done under specific circumstances. Patients with cerebral palsy, particularly children, have a harder time sharing their needs and concerns with healthcare providers. This creates an environment where these specific patients feel unheard and overlooked in a place they frequent for quality care.

Cerebral palsy is a complex disease, as patients have a wide range of health conditions as a result. Because of the greater number of health woes faced by patients with cerebral palsy, they are far more likely to spend time in healthcare facilities, including the hospital, than their peers. Among children, a recent study concluded that children with CP visit the hospital twice as often as children without the disease. Nurses and other medical staff then have an increased chance of providing care to these patients, but obstacles are imminent in doing so.

Children with cerebral palsy are likely to be non-verbal or have complicated communication needs that, without the proper training and resources, many healthcare providers are unable to deliver adequately. Both the child and his or her parents who usually take on the brunt of communication difficulties are left feeling hopeless in meeting their care needs.

Easing the Communication Gap

In any healthcare environment, medical providers are well aware of the need for effective communication but due to minimal research and training, complex communication issues are often left untouched. To help ease the communication gap between children with cerebral palsy, their parents, and the nurses and doctors tasked with providing the highest level of care, a few steps can be implemented, including:

Speaking directly to the children: In a study conducted in 2013, families with children facing complex communication needs were given an opportunity to share their thoughts on what may result in better outcomes for their children while in hospital. The majority of these families shared that children want direct communication from nurses and medical staff, for a myriad of reasons. Gaining attention, answering simple yes or no questions, and conveying basic physical needs were top priorities. Children also wanted to receive information that related directly to their condition, and participate in certain activities normally passed on to the parents. All too often, healthcare providers opt to communicate directly with parents instead of the child, and this brings about frustration from all parties involved. Focusing on the child’s needs and requests is paramount to achieving more effective communication in hospital settings.

Adding low-technology communication aids: In addition to presenting information directly to the child, other studies find that patients with cerebral palsy may be more likely to communicate effectively and feel heard in the process when certain low-tech aids are used as augmentative and alternative communication systems. For instance, utilising handheld boards for writing answers to simple questions, sign language, and presenting pictures all work to benefit the communication needs of children and their parents.

Using high-technology communication aids: While low-technology aids are helpful in some arenas, more advanced technology tools may be more beneficial to children with complex communication needs. Additional augmentative and alternative communication systems may include touchscreen devices, advanced hearing aids, or tablet-based communication programs for the child to interact with. Infrared head pointers, scanning devices, and ACC applications may also benefit the overall communication success among patients with these pressing needs.

Supporting Healthcare Staff to Improve Communication

Although there are several options for improving communication among medical providers and patients with complex needs, ensuring these strategies are included in hospital interactions is not always a simple task. A firm of medical negligence specialists that manages many care claims in hospital settings explains that healthcare professionals often have active roles in helping children with disabilities like cerebral palsy in seating, mobility, and eating needs. However, communication is often left out. This reality can be linked to the environmental barriers to adding augmentative and alternative communication systems in practise, including time constraints, budget concerns, and staffing shortages across the board. To combat these obstacles, training initiatives and a focus on positive outcomes is key to success for providers, patients, and their families.

Children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities that come with complex communication needs must have an ally in hospital settings to achieve greater efficiencies in communicating needs and wants. The only path to quality care for these patients is a combination of approaches based on each unique patient, including direct communication from staff, as well as the addition of low- and high-tech communication aids available for use. When children with cerebral palsy and their parents have the support they need to effectively communicate during each hospital stay, they are more likely to advance positively into youth and adulthood with an optimistic outlook on their healthcare plan.

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