UI app aids in alleviating kids’ pain


A new app is being developed by UI researchers that will be used to distract children from painful medical procedures such as IV insertions.

By Elianna Novitch


With certain medical procedures, pain is unavoidable. However, with the Distraction in Action application, distress caused by these painful medical procedures can be reduced.

Researchers at University of Iowa Children’s Hospital and the UI College of Nursing have developed an app, Distraction in Action, that will be used as an intervention method to distract children from painful medical procedures such as IV insertions.

The app’s development is based on 20 years of research and is geared toward children between the ages of four to 10.

“I was doing my postdoctoral fellowship in psychology when one of my friends who was a nurse came out of a bone-marrow transplant for a kid and grabbed me and said, ‘We have got to do something about the pain these kids are in,’ ” said Ann Marie McCarthy, an associate dean of nursing. “That really triggered me and made me realize that most of us go into pediatrics because we love kids, yet we have to cause them pain through often painful procedures.”

McCarthy is the lead investigator in the research project. She started doing research in helping kids who have pain during procedures approximately 20 years ago.

After an early study in her research regarding procedural pain, McCarthy noticed two things: that distraction was the most successful type of intervention with both kids and parents and that parents really wanted to help their kids, but they were lost and overwhelmed by what they could do.

These findings in her research eventually led to the creation of the Distraction in Action app.

“With this intervention, if you can teach the parent what to do, they feel so much better even if the child does cry, because they know they have at done something to try to ease that pain,” said Charmaine Kleiber, a UI associate research scientist.

The app asks the parent and child a series of predictive questions to gauge the distress level for the upcoming procedure. After all questions have been asked, it shows a prediction of the distress level and provides guidance on whether the parent or a child-life specialist should be in charge of administering the distraction method.

“In our hospital, we have child-life specialists who are trained health-care professionals who can provide high-quality distraction to children,” said Associate Research Scientist Kirsten Hanrahan. “In some hospitals, however, there aren’t trained child-life specialists, and so in those settings, it is crucial to have other tools that parents can use as guidance for how they can best help their child.”

If a parent will administer the distraction, the app provides instructional videos that help guide the parent through the distraction intervention method.

“Our working definition of distraction is taking your focus off the painful medical procedure and directing it onto something playful or focused attention on play,” Hanrahan said.

Some of the methods used for distraction include video games, books, and relaxation exercises. 

Based on responses from approximately 1,000 families who have used the app, McCarthy said this method makes the parent, child, and health-care provider more satisfied.

“It helps with the child’s anxiety, the parent’s anxiety, and the health-care provider’s anxiety and ability to perform the procedure. It actually allows them to preform it more efficiently,” Kleiber said.

Distraction in Action is now moving out of its research phase and into getting it ready for use. The hope is that the app will be free for all to use and adaptable to any device.

“This app really empowers parents to be their child’s distraction coach and to be a key member in the process, ” McCarthy said.

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