Ontario doctors launch program to help patients connect with loved ones during pandemic

Recycled smartphones and tablets are being used across Ontario hospitals and health-care facilities to connect patients with loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. The project is the work of a group of doctors who were having a hard time watching patients suffer alone.

Frontline Connect Canada provides free devices to patients in hospitals, care facilities

Dr. Simerpreet Sandhanwalia, an emergency physician at Hamilton Health Sciences, says collecting donated tablets and smartphones has helped improve patient care during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted/Dr. Simerpreet Sandhanwalia)

Dr. Simerpreet Sandhanwalia says one of the most gut-wrenching experiences as an emergency-room physician throughout the pandemic has been treating patients without family by their bedsides.

"The worst situation for patients is when they're about to be put on a ventilator and they're all by themselves," she said.

"So we would call patients' families on the phone, but having patients talk to their families on the phone is not the same as having them physically there or seeing them."

Sandhanwalia says in some cases physicians were using their own devices to connect families virtually through apps like Facetime, since patients didn't always have access to a smartphone.

She's one of the doctors who helped launch Frontline Connect Canada. The initiative is the work of a group of Ontario physicians who put out a call online for donated smartphones and tablets to help patients and physicians to communicate with families during COVID-19. So far, they've donated more than 275 devices to four Ontario hospitals and 63 hospices and care facilities.

The not-for-profit's tech team supports the devices remotely and provides free troubleshooting. (Submitted/Frontline Connect Canada)

The donations have also helped health-care teams have critical conversations with families about goals of care, patient treatment plans and updates.

"It's immeasurable how helpful they've been. You see the happiness on patient's faces when they can see a loved one," Sandhanwalia said. 

'A simple solution to address a really big need'

In Toronto, the University Health Network still doesn't allow friends and family members to visit patients, with exceptions for essential visitors. In other regions across the province, visitor guidelines are being updated but there are still some restrictions in place to protect patients and staff from COVID-19.

Emmy Luo, a recent University of Guelph graduate and one of the co-founders of Frontline Connect, says the group is looking for donations to get more devices into health-care facilities across the province.

"COVID isn't over and a lot of these infection control measures are going to continue, even as the rest of Ontario opens up," she said.

The physicians started a petition asking telecommunications providers and tablet manufacturers to help by donating encased tablets with calling and data capabilities. (Submitted/Frontline Connect Canada)

Luo said community support and a few initial donations from telecommunications companies helped get the not-for-profit off the ground.

"It's such a simple solution to address a really big need." 

Frontline Connect is accepting donations of working phones and tablets. Ontario hospitals, hospices, and long-term care facilities can request donated smartphones and tablets for free online. Each device will be delivered to the facility by a donor or a volunteer.

Sandhanwalia says the goal is to ensure no patients suffer alone.

"Our hope is to get them into every facility that needs them."


Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She has travelled around the globe with her camera documenting people and places as well as volunteering. Talia enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she's not reporting, you can find her reading or strolling the city with a film camera.


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