Stefan Friedrichsdorf

No-fear needles

2 minute read

In 2013, the Children’s Minnesota hospital system surveyed its clinicians and patients about pain management. Most clinicians thought they were doing a great job with vaccinations and blood draws. Patients, however, “told us, ‘You stink,’” says Dr. Stefan Friedrichsdorf, a pediatric-pain-medicine specialist then working at the hospital. Kids—and their parents—hated coming in for anything involving a needle, because of the mixture of pain and fear.

Inspired to do better, Friedrichsdorf helped roll out a straightforward procedure for making vaccinations and blood draws less painful for kids. First, clinicians apply numbing cream. Then, when the needle goes in, parents or staff distract kids with toys, books, or songs; babies can also breastfeed or have a drop of sugar water. And the whole thing happens in a caregiver’s embrace, rather than while held down on an exam table. 

Many doctors minimize the importance of pain management, Friedrichsdorf says. But making medical treatment less unpleasant encourages parents to keep getting their kids care. Not only that, improving childhood vaccination experiences can prevent kids from growing up to be needle-phobic adults who avoid shots and other treatments, potentially improving public health for generations to come.

The system worked so well in Minnesota that Friedrichsdorf brought it to his current employer, the University of California, San Francisco’s Benioff Children’s Hospital, where it is expected to be in place system-wide by the end of 2024. (TIME owners and co-chairs Marc and Lynne Benioff have been major donors to the hospital.) He has also helped roll it out in hospitals from Brazil to Malaysia. “My claim to fame is not that I invented how to take away pain and anxiety from children,” Friedrichsdorf says. In fact, his entire protocol is based on research that has been available for decades. It was just a matter of synthesizing and applying that research—and recognizing the need for a change.

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