01/07/2016 04:53 EST | Updated 01/07/2016 04:59 EST

Alberta Children's Hospital Finds New Ways To Help Kids Manage Pain

Bill Graveland/CP

CALGARY — Five-year-old Micah Shaw didn't seem to have a care in the world Thursday as she happily played a game on a computer tablet while she was getting treatment on her broken arm at Alberta Children's Hospital.

While Micah was given special attention by child life specialist Cathy Smith, her mother Lindsay McKay was relieved that the hospital has implemented a program to help kids cope with pain and stress during emergency room visits.

"She's kind of an introvert and a little bit shy and takes awhile to warm up,'' said McKay.

"When we first came on Dec. 23, there was a little craft bag in emergency ... which is really great because she loves art. And even just sitting here now with someone playing with the iPad and something she's comfortable with has been really great.''

"We partner with patients and families to make sure they have the tools that they need."

The initiative to ease anxiety and pain for children was launched last fall. Emergency room physicians Antonia Stang and Jennifer Thull-Freedman talked to patients and 15 per cent said they would have taken pain medicine, but none was offered to them. Eighteen per cent felt their pain was not being managed effectively.

"Realizing there were some areas where we could improve, we embarked on a make sure that we partner with patients and families to make sure they have the tools that they need, so that their pain is assessed and managed here in the emergency department and when they go home,'' said Stang.

Young patients are now given an individual, bookmark-sized pain scale to help them describe what they're feeling and to help staff more accurately understand the level of each person's pain.

Treating pain doesn't have to mean a needle

"We want to make sure they treat the pain and there's lots of ways we can do that,'' Stang said. "Sometimes it's with medicine they can take by mouth. Sometimes it's with a needle — although that's one of the big fears patients and families have, (that) treating pain means a needle.

"That's one of the myths we've worked hard to dispel.''

The doctors are also using toys and tablet computers to help patients take their minds off their injuries.

Nine-year-old William Marshall broke his arm while snowboarding and found the pain scale useful.

"It really helped to look at the face scale and see what my pain was,'' he said. "They gave me medicine to help the pain go away and they did a splint. I think they did a really great job.''

Doctors and nurses have received more education on how to support a child in pain.

"For example, comfort positions are promoted when a child needs a procedure, so he or she can sit up or snuggle a parent and feel in control, rather than having to lie flat,'' said Thull-Freedman.

Plans are being made to expand the program into other departments at the hospital and to more emergency departments across Calgary this spring.

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