Video calling service helps patients and families stay connected during COVID-19 pandemic



By Danielle Pereira

Becoming first time parents at the start of a worldwide pandemic is stressful enough. Add to it the need for your baby to receive care in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for several weeks with only one parent allowed to visit and you can start to understand what Aziza Shiule and her husband were dealing with earlier this year.

“We had our baby at St. Michael’s Hospital towards the beginning stages of COVID-19, so my husband was able to be with me for the delivery and the first week in the NICU,” Shiule said. “But when the virus began to spread, it was too risky to have visitors.”

In late March, the provincial government directed all hospitals to restrict visiting due to the risks of COVID-19. Unity Health Toronto, which St. Michael’s is part of, followed that direction, implementing a temporary policy that restricted visitors but allowed some exceptions, including one designated parent or guardian per patient in the NICU.

That meant Shiule’s husband was at home, unable to see his newborn baby – that is until a brand new process was implemented at the hospital that made virtual calls possible.

As the pandemic was taking hold, Unity Health’s patient experience and virtual care teams worked quickly to implement allowing patients, residents or families to request a video call using an iPod or iPad. The service is available across all three Unity Health hospital sites and its long-term care home.

The team sought input from patients, residents and families to help co-design the service and provide feedback to make improvements. Shiule was approached by the NICU team with the opportunity to test the service.

Not only was Shiule able to virtually connect with her husband, allowing him the opportunity to see and get to know their baby, their calls provided valuable feedback to improve the service for other patients and families.

Aziza and Alaia“We know that support from family and friends can be important to a patient’s recovery,” said Maggie Ford, Manager of Quality and Patient Safety at Unity Health. “It creates a sense of calm and connection that can help with recovery, mental health and overall well-being. So we were really excited to launch this virtual call program.”

Ford said the calls have been running smoothly thanks to video visiting coordinators – hospital staff who have been redeployed from their usual roles during the pandemic who are delivering devices to patients, setting up video calls and ensuring devices are correctly cleaned and disinfected.

“It has been gratifying to see the immense joy and comfort the virtual visiting brings both patients and families,” said Jaya Carpen, one of the video visiting coordinators who normally works in patient registration. “I’m finding myself looking forward to scheduling smiles on faces to help patients and families get through this time.”

Kate Evans, Project Manager with the virtual care team, says there has been significant support and demand for the service since it rolled out.

“Our teams have supported approximately 400 video visits over the last month between patients, residents and families,” she said. “We’ve heard back from many clinicians saying they see a difference in the physical and mental wellbeing of patients after they use the service and connect with their loved ones.”

Shiule is now back at home with her husband and they’re both adjusting to life with a newborn. While the virus made it an unusual experience, Shiule said she was relieved when the NICU team informed her of the video calling service.

“I had been thinking about different scenarios, like if I caught the virus and suddenly couldn’t be with my daughter for two weeks while in isolation,” she said. “She changes so much from day-to-day, so it was nice to know this service was available to help keep families connected like it did for ours.”