Virtual Visiting Comes to COVID-19 ICUs

Rachel Pugh

April 16, 2020

Television images of COVID-19 patients dying in Italian hospitals have sparked a project to provide every ICU in the UK with the technology for ‘virtual visiting’ for families barred from visiting relatives for reasons of infection control.

The Life Lines project aims to provide two tablets to every intensive care unit (ICU) across the UK, to allow relatives to see and speak to their loved ones via a tablet using a secure online platform, called aTouchAway. The aim is to deliver more than 1000 devices by the end of next week. The number of tablets per ICU will increase in the coming weeks supported by a fundraising campaign.

Death With No Family at the Bedside

It was the idea of Professor Louise Rose, a professor of critical care nursing at King's College London and of Dr Joel Meyer, a critical care consultant at Guy’s and St Thomas’, after both had seen heart-rending images of patients dying without contact with their families. Life Lines was launched this week at Guy’s and St Thomas’ and King’s College Hospital.

It provides families with the opportunity to ‘meet’ the clinical team providing care, ask questions, and better to understand the environment where their family member is being treated.

Even in a non-pandemic situation, visiting an ICU is distressing for families and friends, but in the current crisis Dr Meyer said: "To reduce the risk of infection, hospitals are currently restricting visitors which means many patients don’t have any contact with their relatives once they are admitted to intensive care. Not being able to connect with loved ones is such a cruel element of this pandemic.

"Although ICU patients are usually sedated, hearing a loved one’s voice can be extremely comforting. This secure platform enables family members to be virtually by their bedside, which is particularly important when patients are approaching the end of their lives."

The project has been developed by a partnership of clinicians, academics, companies and charities who have shared expertise and resources, with initial seed funding of £1 million from the True Colours Trust and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation.

The technological solutions were put together in 3 days, through a collaborative effort by BT, Google, Samsung, and MobileIron. Life Lines has been provided with a large number of 4G-enabled tablets secured by Android Enterprise, which come loaded with aTouchAway. BT can also provide ICUs with a 4G Wi-Fi hub which can be installed by clinicians themselves.

According to the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre, the survival rate for COVID-19 patients referred to the ICU is only 49.9%, so the main vision of the new tablet service is to support the families rather than the patients themselves, most of whom are not conscious.

Personal Moments

Professor Rose said that trials in the ICUs had been overwhelmingly positive, with families delighted just to be able to see their relative and to understand what was happening to them. She said: "It’s a very personal moment. If for some reason - such as now because of the risk of infection - the family is not able to be present, it is the best that can be done in the circumstances."

Currently St Thomas' Hospital is setting up more than 50 calls a day of 5-15 minutes. The system is being trialed in dozens of other hospitals across the UK. Professor Rose said: "We hope that now we have the technology in the hospital as a COVID tool, that it will stay there as a permanent technology in ICU."

The power of social media is already providing support in less extreme health settings. NHSX is working with Facebook during the pandemic to support isolated people through the provision of 2050 free Portal video calling devices. They will go to hospitals, care homes and other settings including hospices and in-patient learning disability and autism units. Fifty of the devices have already been deployed to pilot sites in Surrey, with Manchester, Newcastle and London and other areas to follow.

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