Children in Hospitals: 1948 to 2018

NHS70

Recently BBC News have published a series of articles about the National Health Service (NHS) turning 70 years old. One of these focuses on how children’s experiences in hospitals have changed over those 70 years. It shares children’s current experiences in the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, where there’s a rooftop garden with toys, giggle doctors and parents can stay with their children the whole time. It compares these to the stories of children in hospitals back in the 1940s, when they were treated in a very different way.

The article shares the experience of Andrea Merrall, who had a long stay in hospital for treatment for tuberculosis when she was four in 1948. Her parents were only permitted to visit once a week, and because Andrea used to get so upset when her parents left, they became banned from visiting at all. This type of practice was commonplace; Lindon (2012: 74) talks about how child patients used to be seen in the same way as adult patients, with the medical view that “children had short memories, so there could be no lasting ill-effects, even when parents were made unwelcome, because they allegedly upset their children”, as in Andrea’s case. This belief fits with how Jones (2009: 29)  argues children were traditionally seen; he argues that historically the child was viewed as “a mini-adult lacking in full adult capacities” rather than the modern view that they are “an individual with their own capacities”.

However, now the experiences of children in hospital are unlike that of Andrea’s and other child patients in the 1940s and 1950s. One reason for this was due to researchers James and Joyce Robertson (1989) who made films called A Two Year Old Goes to Hospital and Going to Hospital with Mother (you can see extracts of the films here and here). Their research identified that the children were becoming upset because they were being removed from their key relationships and put into an unfamiliar environment, not because their parents were upsetting them. In 1961 excerpts of their films were shown on television and James Robertson called for communities to put pressure on hospitals to improve conditions, including in relation to children’s emotional wellbeing and parental involvement. Subsequently a group called Mother Care of Children in Hospital (now called Action for Sick Children) was set up in Battersea, which aimed to “persuade hospital staff that the new concepts were worthwhile and could work, and to persuade parents that they had a vital role to play in the care of their sick child” (Belson, 2011).  Since then they have advocated to change hospital practices to remove restrictions on visiting hours, recognise children’s emotional needs and meet sick children’s rights.

The changes to children’s hospital experiences highlight the key role of conducting research (as Robertson and Robertson did) for identifying the need to change practice. It also emphasises the important work of voluntary community groups to advocate for what’s best for young children. Belson (2011) suggests that “a great deal has been achieved but there is still more to be done!” What research do you think should be conducted on children’s inpatient experiences? And in what ways do you think children’s hospital stays could be improved?

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