Tech lifelines keep human touch alive in the time of Covid-19

Categories: Care, Community Engagement, and Featured.

Virtual links ease worries of patients and loved ones

Infected with Covid-19, gravely ill Walter Bowers was not alone when he turned 100 in the high-care ward of a Sandton hospital.

A video call allowed his daughter, Jenny Cottrell, to be right there to mark his milestone birthday. And during Bowers’ marathon stay at Mediclinic Sandton in Johannesburg, she was able to monitor and virtually “visit” him.

The lack of human connection to contain the spread of the virus has been one of the toughest challenges faced by patients, their families and health-care workers. But thanks to technology, more hospitals across SA are helping ease the fear and stress using various approaches to link patients with their families.

The Mediclinic private hospital group has been facilitating virtual conversations between patients and their families at all its facilities through Zoom and similar technology.

Dr Stefan Smuts, chief clinical officer of Mediclinic Southern Africa, said nurses and patient experience managers have been linking families with their loved ones via tablets to give them “some love and motivation to continue their recovery fight”.

Smuts said the technological approach had also helped give closure to families whose loved ones died from the virus.

Patient experience manager Madali Groenewald said she saw “tremendous value” in the initiative.

“I have been playing voice notes and video clips from loved ones to patients via a tablet. These patients are often unable to communicate back,” she said. “Not only has this given the loved ones a voice, it creates an opportunity to share messages from the heart — sometimes words of encouragement, sometimes prayers, sometimes songs.

“Then, during the recovery phase, the patient begins to communicate back, and then their eyes light up when they hear the familiar voices on the other side of the screen …

“There is no doubt in my mind that this tool has ignited the fighting spirit within ill patients and a spark of hope in the hearts of their loved ones.”

For Cottrell, being able to see her father’s face was comfort enough during his recovery journey.

“He lived through the Spanish flu and survived Covid-19. Although he could not communicate with me, being able to see his face nearly every day and convey my love and encouragement was comforting for me. It was just amazing.”

Cottrell believes her virtual presence may have helped her father survive Covid-19.

At the Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town, families of severely ill Covid-19 patients are regularly updated about their conditions by volunteer counsellors thanks to a tailor-made app.

Dr Shelley Kibel, a palliative care specialist at the hospital, said a specially designed online spreadsheet allowed doctors to give updates about patients to the counsellors, who conveyed the information to family members.

“Where needed, video calls are set up and voice notes are played to the patients by counsellors within the hospital,” she said.

“Covid has created a situation with so many layers of distress and anxiety. By addressing this anxiety and showing people that they are not alone, people are in a much stronger position to face all the challenges and heartbreak.

“We have been able to celebrate the recoveries with families and their medical team. Where patients have died, we have helped families say goodbye in as dignified a way as possible,” said Kibel.

Cape Town couple Ntsiki and Dumisani Nyamza were both admitted to Life Vincent Pallotti after contracting Covid-19 in June.

“I recovered but my husband was very ill and in the ICU for about 11 days. The constant communication gave me some peace of mind. I was very scared,” said Ntsiki. “I was hanging on to every bit of information. You see when you are in that situation you need someone to say it will be OK.”

Patients at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Johannesburg are also able to get virtual comfort from their families through a free WiFi project driven by several private companies.

Unlimited WiFi enables patients to connect to the network with their own devices. Devices are provided for those who do not have them.

“The thought of critically ill patients lying in an ICU ward alienated from the people that care for them was too hard to comprehend,“ said Greg Wilson, CEO of Reflex Solutions. “We wanted to give people the opportunity to reach out and be with their loved ones on a day-to-day basis …”

The initiative is now also being rolled out at Steve Biko Academic Hospital and Tshwane District Hospital.

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