Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust

Connect keeps patients in touch with loved ones during Covid-19

“She told me about the Visionable platform and we all went ‘ah-ha’,”

As Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust prepared for coronavirus ‘lockdown’, chief digital and partnerships officer David Walliker was concerned that patients were going to miss vital visits from family and friends. A tablet loaded with the Visionable:Connect video calling app put them back in touch.

As the novel coronavirus swept across England, hospitals were asked to prepare to treat patients with Covid-19, to suspend routine activity, and to stop friends and family visiting their wards.

David Walliker, the chief digital and partnerships officer at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, vividly remembers the board meeting that discussed this last piece of guidance, which was issued as prime minister Boris Johnson prepared to instruct the country to “stay at home” on 23 March.

“On Sunday, 22 March, we agreed that we needed to close outpatients and stop visitors from the following day, which was Mother’s Day,” he says. “I knew that was the right decision, but I felt on a personal and compassionate level that it was going to be very difficult for our patients not to be able to see family and friends.”

Wallker felt there must be a technological solution and he called Steve Killick, product manager at WiFi SPARK, to see if it could think of one. By Monday, WiFi SPARK had put together a package of entertainment and communications apps that could be secured and managed by the SPARK Media platform on a tablet that could be loaned to patients.

The trust wanted the platform, now called SPARK Media:Unite, because it didn’t want staff to have to spend time administering the machines. However, there was still a problem.

Commercial video calling apps have to be downloaded onto a device and they often require an account or at least registration before they can be used. Some of the trust’s patients would have struggled with this, so Walliker looked for a simpler solution.

Fortunately, he made another call at this point, this time to Rachel Dunscombe, a former trust CIO who had just started advising Visionable on technology. “She told me about the Visionable platform and we all went ‘ah-ha’,” Walliker says.

The Visionable:Connect app was added to the package. To use it, patients simply enter their loved one’s number or email address into the app, which sends them a link, which they click to start the call. There’s no account to set up, nothing to download at the other end, and as soon as the call ends, it’s gone.

Thousands of virtual visits
“More cheerfully, our nurses say that when patients on our elderly wards make calls you can hear kids shouting with excitement because they are able to see their grandparents for the first time in weeks.”

WiFi SPARK had a fully functioning solution that included the Visionable app by Monday, 29 March. In the meantime, the trust had given Walliker the go-ahead to buy 246 Samsung tablets, so the trust was ready to start deployment within a week of that first call.

Since then, the trust has bought additional tablets and deployed them across intensive care, adult wards, and paediatrics – where the tablets have also enabled children to access educational materials and the games element of the package has been particularly popular.

It has also loaned them to the private sector for the use of NHS patients, while WiFi SPARK has made the solution available to other trusts. By May, it had been adopted by seven organisations from London to Liverpool.

Bruno Botelho, director of digital operations at Chelsea and Westminster NHS Foundation Trust, said at the time that “patients need to experience human connections with their family and friends” so he was “very grateful” that WiFi SPARK and Visionable had found a way for them to do that “at a very difficult time in their lives.”  

Back in Oxford, Walliker says that 3,593 virtual visits have been made using the solution, for 602 hours of time (the trust has been limiting Visionable:Connect calls to an hour). “We have heard some really touching stories about the impact this has made,” he adds.

“We have had patients make calls from intensive care to say goodbye to loved ones. We had a patient from Canada in that position, and while nobody wants to say goodbye on a tablet, the reality is that without this solution his family would not have had the chance to say goodbye at all.

“More cheerfully, our nurses say that when patients on our elderly wards make calls you can hear kids shouting with excitement because they are able to see their grandparents for the first time in weeks.”

With technology, healthcare can innovate
“It has all been a very good experience.”

Another aspect of the project, and one that nobody could have anticipated in March, is that it has enabled professionals to support patients without having to visit their bedside.

After all, it wasn’t just friends and family who couldn’t get onto hospital wards when the virus arrived. Many medical staff couldn’t get there either, particularly in the early days of the outbreak when it was unclear how much personal protective equipment was required and PPE was in short supply.

Oxford Hospitals has been able to give patients leaving intensive care access to psychological health services via the Visionable app and other solutions and to deliver physiotherapy the same way.

“We didn’t set out to do this, but the technology enabled us to find innovative solutions to get people who did not want to be on the wards, or who did not want to be in full PPE kit, onto the wards, or only using the kit when they really needed it,” Walliker says. “It has all been a very good experience.”

It has also been an experience that Visionable has been happy to support, given its mission to make health and care accessible to all. Chief executive Alan Lowe says: “We developed the Visionable:Connect app so hospitals could offer virtual visiting to patients whose families and friends might be unable to visit them.

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