Several years ago, my mother spent more than a month in the ICU at our local hospital, and I was the “daughter on the spot.” The several-times-a-day ICU visitor. The family contact with her medical team. The texter of updates and answerer of calls. My sisters lived hours away, so I was the one who held the phone for FaceTime on the days they couldn’t visit, giving my mom a chance to hear my sisters’ voices and them an opportunity to see her face. We didn’t understand it at the time, but it was our own version of virtual visitation.

Throughout the pandemic, I thought often about those weeks in the ICU. I remembered how my sisters felt when distance limited their ability to visit. I felt the anguish of families who were unable to sit at a loved one’s bedside to do the little things I’d done.

Even on a ventilator in the ICU, the author’s mother wrote notes to express her opinion. With virtual visitation, she might have shared on a tablet.
Even on a ventilator in the ICU, the author’s mother wrote notes to express her opinion. “Sit down and relax” was a frequent demand.

What would that experience have been like for my mother and for me if we hadn’t been together? How would we have stayed connected? Even on a ventilator, my mom was a prolific communicator, writing notes to ask questions about family, share her thoughts about the news of the day, and issue orders. What would I have done if I hadn’t been there to respond?

Technology for virtual visitation brings patients and loved ones closer

In New South Wales in Australia, the ICU team at Wollongong Hospital was asking many of the same questions, though their consideration was more time critical—and less philosophical—than my own.

The team knew that technology held the answer to connecting ICU patients with family members who couldn’t visit. At the same time, they understood that traditional devices and apps weren’t accessible to critically ill patients who couldn’t hold or operate a device. ICU staff who wanted to help were often taken away by more urgent demands of the busy unit. Plus, the hospital needed to protect security and patient privacy.

HowRU is born

Wollongong Hospital reached out to Taleka, which helps organizations adopt collaboration technology. Taleka’s team met with ICU staff and patients’ families to understand what was needed, the support patients and families required and ICU staff could deliver. They strategized on how to enable open and flexible virtual visitation. Taleka then took those insights to IT solutions provider Citrus Solutions, which created HowRU based on Webex by Cisco.

HowRU operates from a tablet secured to an adjustable stand that can be wheeled to the bedside. ICU staff, or the patient if they’re able, opens a secure, dedicated online family communication space with just two clicks. Family members join the space and can connect any time without interrupting ICU staff.

“We can facilitate visitation between family and patients very easily and very flexibly,” explains Dr. Kathleen Thomas, an intensive care advanced trainee at Wollongong Hospital. “This system is ready to be implanted in any intensive care unit.” Read the full story about virtual visitation at Wollongong Hospital.

What’s next for virtual visitation?

Wollongong Hospital—and other busy facilities—can use HowRU even when there are no limits on hospital visits. In fact, the hospital now offers virtual visitation for all patients whose families are unable to be at the bedside, whether they live far away, as my sisters did, or face other challenges to visiting in person.

For more on the development and implementation of the HowRU solution, see the Journal of Intensive Care Medicine.

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Donna Eason

Global Customer Marketing Writer