Made-in-Ottawa technology connecting loved ones with a single touch

An Ottawa company has come up with an easy-to-use video chat platform for families who can't visit their loved ones in hospitals or nursing homes because of COVID-19.

aTouchAway a lifeline for families who can't visit hospitals, nursing homes due to COVID-19

Barb Campbell, top left, says her family plans to keep using aTouchAway to stay connected with her mother, even when visits at her Russell, Ont., nursing home resume. (Submitted by Barb Campbell )

Kim Schrader often becomes emotional when she talks about her patients at the Queensway Carleton Hospital, but she's worried about their families, too.

With visits halted nearly two months ago due to COVID-19, Schrader, the clinical manager of the hospital's rehabilitation and transition to home unit, said some families are becoming frantic.

"I have taken multiple calls from family who just want to be here, and they just want to know that [the patients] aren't scared or confused," Schrader said.

Connecting them hasn't been easy with existing technology. So last month, the hospital began using a made-in-Ottawa video conferencing platform called aTouchAway.

Schrader said the technology is unique because users don't need to log in, download links or remember passwords. Connecting patients to their loved ones is literally one touch of the screen away, saving hospital staff valuable time into the bargain.

Nurse Kim Schrader holds one of the donated tablets the Queensway Carleton Hospital uses to connect patients with their families using aTouchAway. (Submitted by Kim Schrader)

Request from U.K.

It was developed by Michel Paquet, CEO and founder of Aetonix Systems, located in Ottawa's Bayview Yards.

Initially designed as a video platform to connect health professionals with their patients at home to monitor chronic conditions such as heart disease or emphysema, aTouchAway had its big breakthrough thanks to a visit by Paquet to the U.K. in January.

In March, doctors at London's St. Thomas Hospital called Paquet back to ask if the technology might be adapted for use with patients in intensive care, including those on ventilators.

"Someone is [coming to the end of] their life alone and the family needs to see them," Paquet said. "It was urgent and critical, and to provide that — well, we are really proud of that." 

Now, the technology is in use at 168 hospitals across the U.K., and things are picking up at home as well. In addition to the Queensway Carleton Hospital, which has received a donation of 48 tablets loaded with the app, the Brockville General and Lennox & Addington County General hospitals are also using aTouchAway.

Michel Paquet is CEO of Ottawa's Aetonix Systems. (Submitted by Michel Paquet)

'It was monumental'

Schrader said it's been making a difference. The veteran nurse recalls one 94-year-old patient who recently died of an illness other than COVID-19, and the comfort aTouchAway gave her loved ones in her final moments.

"Her family was thrilled to have relaxed chats and conversation," she said. "It was monumental, and it will bring them so much peace and a bit of closure to know that they were able to see her for themselves." 

Paquet, who's had to hire more staff to keep up with the demand, is now eyeing long-term care homes.

"Some of our seniors are really isolated now," he said. "It's heartbreaking, and we can do better." 

Evora Doyle, 88, uses aTouchAway to connect with her children from her nursing home in Russell, Ont. (Submitted by Barb Campbell )

Barb Campbell has signed up for the app, which costs $15 per month, to stay connected with her 88-year-old mother, Evora Doyle, who has dementia and lives in a retirement home in Russell, Ont.

"Without visually seeing us, I feared she'd forget us and she'd really start deteriorating," said Campbell, who's been unable to visit in person since mid-March.

The screen on her mother's tablet has photos of her children, so all she has to do is press on one or several of them to begin a video chat.

Campbell said even when the family can resume visits with her mother, they plan to keep using aTouchAway because Doyle can no longer dial telephone numbers. 

"For the patients who are in their room all the time it's so sad, and all their families want is to just see them," Campbell said. "I feel badly that other places have not jumped on board with this technology."

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