British Columbia

B.C. health-care workers hope to share virtual communications system they never had to use

A team of B.C. health-care professionals say the virtual communications system they developed — and never had to use — could help hospitals in other jurisdictions facing surges in COVID-19 cases.

System uses video, text messaging to limit patient and physician contact

Dr. Doug Brown and nurse Abby Holder are pictured outside of the Royal Columbian hospital’s emergency entrance in New Westminster, British Columbia on Thursday, July 23, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A team of B.C. health-care professionals say the virtual communication system they developed — and never had to use — could help hospitals in other jurisdictions facing surges in COVID-19 cases.

Dr. Doug Brown, an emergency room physician at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, said the idea was sparked when the pandemic hit B.C.

Initially, he feared the worst.

"We assumed we were days or weeks away from becoming Italy or New York," he said. 

He realized doctors and nurses would need the ability to communicate virtually with patients or else they'd risk further spreading the virus and use up personal protective equipment too fast. 

Phone calls and text messaging were out of the question due to privacy concerns, he said. He was told rolling out new technology in hospitals could take weeks, months or years and cost millions of dollars.

Turns out the solution was already in many people's homes. 

"What we discovered was that we could use repurposed consumer electronics with what turned out to be free, high level encryption software to create the tools that we needed to build virtual health-care into our workflow," he said. 

Within days, Brown and his team were able to get five tablets for the pilot project. Using the encrypted messaging service Signal, health-care providers could communicate with patients through video and messaging without having to go into their room.

Abby Holder, a registered nurse at Royal Columbian, said it improved the patient's experience at a time when contact was limited and teaching patients how to use them wasn't difficult.

"Over the tablets, they're actually able to interact with someone in a face-to-face manner, actually see our mannerisms and see our eyes," she said.

"[Patients] gave us the feedback that they were able to develop relationships virtually with their nurse."

Patients could use the tablets to show nurses their vital signs, Brown said. The technology could also be used in case staff had to quarantine at home. A nurse could handle virtual charting while working remotely, as another nurse handled the in-person routine checks.

Although the team prepared for the worst, the worst never happened. B.C. flattened the curve and hospitals never received the surge in COVID-19 patients they initially expected.

"The public health effort, the community coming together and locking down, essentially averted the crisis for us," Brown said.

"We developed all these tools, but then we never needed them."

He wants to share this technology with anyone who might need it, anywhere in the world. 

The team created a website with instructions for communities to reconfigure old devices for the hospital and instructions for how hospitals can use them for virtual care and communication.

"In theory, we could use it here. Hopefully, we never get there, but I imagine there must be places in the world who need it right now," Brown said. 

With files from Belle Puri

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