Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Helping patients with autism navigate the stressful ER

When you head to the emergency room, you almost expect stress -- the long waits, the hubbub of other patients and the endless, seemingly discombobulated stream of doctors and nurses.

But for patients with autism, a neurological disorder that affects communication and can make people sensitive to stimulation, that stress can be so overwhelming that it undermines their ability to get the treatment they need.

That's why a small but growing number of hospital ERs across the country are implementing accommodations for these patients, hoping to improve the quality of care they provide while also adding efficiency.

"There's a growing need," said Fareed Fareed, medical director of the emergency department at HealthAlliance Hospital in Kingston, New York. "It's ensuring you're meeting the needs of a segment of the population."

The changes can range from better training, to cosmetic adjustments -- offering calming objects like toys and iPads, or sending patients to separate, quieter waiting rooms and using dimmer lighting -- to capital projects, like building new rooms specifically for autistic patients.

Some facilities also are revamping their treatment protocols. For instance, at the Nemours Children's Hospital emergency department in Orlando, Fla., parents are asked if their child has autism. If yes, staffers designate the child specifically, performing any procedures in a room reserved for autistic patients. That way, doctors know in advance they'll have to adapt -- maybe using drawings to help patients describe how they feel, or physically showing them when they need to get on a scale. If patients prefer to write their feelings, not talk, doctors will work with that.

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