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Connecting with pediatric patients: Four things to learn from “The Dancing Doc”

No doubt about it: Tony Adkins, PA-C, is an inspiration. But he’s also a tough act to follow.

“The Dancing Doc” made headlines for boogying with the kids at CHOC Children’s. Tony’s dancing delights those kids, as well as their parents. It builds a meaningful connection that otherwise might never have taken shape.

“Treating things medically is our training—it’s the easy part,” Tony said in an interview with Good Morning America. “It takes something different to connect on a personal level.”

Watching clips of him and his beaming patients, it’s easy to see why he’s a viral sensation.

Other clinicians, however, might wonder: Is that what I have to do to connect with kids?

What if I’m a little shy? What if I’m a wallflower? What if I simply don’t have the time for a mid-shift dance break?

Good news: connecting with pediatric patients doesn’t need to be an elaborate production. Even if clinicians don’t have Tony’s dance moves, there are four little things they can do to build a quick rapport with kids.

Most of them take just a few minutes—and there’s no boombox required.

  1. Do your homework

Cultural competence is an important clinical skill. That’s especially true with kid culture.

Keeping up with children’s interests is hard. For adults, it’s almost like learning a foreign language.

If we don’t have kids at home, how many of us know the names of the new Pokémon games? Or who the latest teen idol is?

Kids know this stuff, and they love talking about it. If you can talk about it with them, you’ll have an easy way to get the conversational ball rolling.

This is one area where Tony really shines. He keeps a library of songs on his phone that he knows will be a hit with his patients. It’s as simple as putting together a playlist on Spotify.

But you can find another way to relate. If you like books, consider picking up a YA title or two; if you’re a binge-watcher, spend some time in the kids’ sections of YouTube and Netflix.

Picking up just a few cultural touchpoints, across a variety of age groups, can make it a lot easier to get kids chatting.

  1. Take a pause

Most clinicians have felt it: the sensation of being in the room with a patient, but not really present with them.

They’re thinking about the documentation they need to catch up on. Or the all-hands meeting they just came from. Or the cutting remark from a short-tempered parent they saw the day before.

However subtly, this mental baggage affects the patient interaction. It puts clinicians at a remove from the people they’re caring for.

They might hope their patients don’t notice…but usually, they do. Children are especially sensitive to distracted caregivers.

The solution is to use mindfulness to keep those distractions quiet.

Tony uses music to stay in the moment. Other clinicians take a different approach. Michael Donlin, PA-C, uses a brief moment of meditation:

Before entering the patient’s room—usually as I’m rubbing the hand sanitizer between my fingers—I take a deep breath… The instruction here is just to notice without judgment. From that place of noticing, I have done a quick erasing of my emotional whiteboard to create space where I can respond rather than react to what is most important to my patient.

  1. Pause long enough to feel the ground supporting you under both feet.
  2. Take a deep, cleansing belly breath. Exhale fully without added effort.
  3. Notice, without judgment, the sensations in your body.
  4. Feel the space created by the melting and releasing of those feelings.
  5. Bring that feeling of space with you as you begin the conversation with the patient.

It may not sound like much. But in the course of another hectic day on the floor, sometimes all it takes is a breath to settle your mind.

  1. Be kid-first

Most kids are used to being “talked over.” Adult conversations happen above and around them, not with them. If kids want to join in, they have to pipe up and ask for permission.

That dynamic won’t work in a pediatric hospital. Patients need to know, from the get-go, that their visit is all about them.

At the start of the appointment, then, it’s always a good idea to greet the child first, before saying hello to any of their caregivers. It’s a simple gesture that shows the patient where your focus is—on them, where it belongs.

Being “kid-first” also means respecting the child’s autonomy. Making efforts to include them in care decisions will go a long way toward earning their trust. Asking permission before performing any examinations, for example, or offering choices when possible, will help them to feel that they’re part of the care process.

These are the fundamentals of a productive patient-clinician relationship. Not only are they essential for earning the child’s buy-in and compliance, but they also make patients more comfortable with you as a provider.

And you needn’t be concerned about parents or other caregivers feeling snubbed. After all, they want what’s best for their child, too.

“Connecting with the kids isn’t just for them,” Tony says. “It’s also for the families. Moms and dads love it when I’m connected with the patients.”

  1. Bring your personality in the room with you

Finally, Tony believes that every clinician has some way to make their patient encounters a little special. It’s up to each of them to try and find it.

“For me, it was dance,” he says. “For you it might be magic tricks, or maybe you’re good with a harmonica. What it is specifically isn’t important, but we as clinicians have to find some way to connect. Once you connect, you win—they trust you with your life forever.”

What do you love enough to bring into your care? What can you share with the people you care for?

Tony’s love of music and performance helps him build a great relationship with the kids at CHOC Children’s. He believes these efforts are almost as important as treatment itself.

“Laughter and silliness are one of the best doses of medicine I can provide to my patients,” he wrote in an op-ed for Medpage Today.

 In the era of patient-centered care, who could disagree?

Join us at our upcoming 25th Annual Symposium. Hear directly from Tony “The Dancing Doctor” Adkins, PA-C, why he’s dancing, and how the scientific research backs up his decision. Sandra Schultz, Customer Service Manager from CHOC Children’s will also be joining him to share how this engagement with patients and their families has created a high-performing clinic.