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New ways of working help keep critically ill patients in touch with families

Staff from Addenbrooke’s hospital are taking innovative steps to help critically ill patients stay in touch with their loved ones during the coronavirus crisis.

Shot of two staff members in full PPE in the critical care unit standing around a bed with a patient caring from him
ICU - clinicians are helping to share messages from loved ones

Infection control measures to protect patients, their families and NHS staff mean visiting restrictions are in place, and relatives cannot physically visit the hospital.

It can be devastating for patients and families, and tough on staff committed to providing the most compassionate care. But teams within the intensive care units (ICUs) at Addenbrooke’s are finding new ways of helping patients communicate virtually with relatives.  

Rosie Tasker, a critical care nurse who has had to stay at home since the pandemic began, but was desperate to help patients and families, is leading the newly formed Relatives Communications Team. The Team comprises other critical care nurses who have had to stay at home, critical care nurses working on site, doctors, psychology and the chaplaincy. 

Home-based staff operate via telephone, skype and email to share important information and practical advice with families of patients admitted to the hospital’s four ICUs. Importantly, they are able to set up virtual meetings between families and loved ones using Skype and iPads. 

Some families have used the service to share the moment their loved one turned the corner, while others have used it to say their final goodbyes. There have been lots of other poignant moments in between for partners, children, doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants.

For many families with patients on ventilators, it is a comfort just being able to get early sight of their loved ones, and the surroundings they are in, and exchange a few words with those dedicated to their care.

The service is the brainchild of ICU consultant, Dr Rowan Burnstein, who feels passionately about finding new ways of enabling families and patients to stay in touch. Rowan has been able to ensure every patient in critical care at Addenbrooke’s has access to an iPad thanks to support from organisations including the hospital charity, Addebrooke’s Charitable Trust (ACT) and the Oxford-based not for profit initiative, the iComms for ICUs Project.

Even while in isolation my colleagues and I wanted to do our best for patients. We recognise that communication is vital to the wellbeing of families and patients, despite the restrictions on visiting.

The Skype service enables a moment of contact with a loved one, regardless of whether anything is spoken. The carers on the wards are a great help in enabling us to facilitate this for families, and I am very proud of what we are achieving as a team.

Rowan added: “I am hugely grateful for the support we have received and to Rosie for helping to drive this forward. The comfort the service brings to families and patients, when they are under so much emotional and physical pressure, makes all the effort worthwhile.”  

Other developments to aid communication include a pioneering app developed by speciality registrar, Dr Tim Baker. He and intensive care consultant Dr Vilas Navapurker have created  an iPad app – called MyICUvoice – with the help of a £40,000 development grant from ACT and support from many others, including 40 volunteers.

The free app, which has just gone live on App Store and has the potential to help hospitals worldwide, has been specifically designed for patients who cannot communicate because they are on ventilators.

Headshot of Rosie Tasker smiling at the camera she is wearing black rimmed glasses, a white jumper and a NICU lanyard Headshot of Dr Rowan Burnstein smiling at the camera wearing a blue dress and a yellow lanyard
Headshot of Rosie Tasker smiling at the camera she is wearing black rimmed glasses, a white jumper and a NICU lanyard
Rosie Tasker
Headshot of Dr Rowan Burnstein smiling at the camera wearing a blue dress and a yellow lanyard
Dr Rowan Burnstein

The team has received requests for access from Australia, Canada, USA, Kuwait, Saudi and France, work is underway to translate it into multiple languages, and under another initiative it is being delivered pre-loaded on iPads to ICU’s across the country.

Thanks to new software and touch screen technology, patients, who are often too weak to write or gesture, can tap on iPads and specially designed icons to tell clinicians anything from where they are feeling pain to whether they have a dry mouth.

 It reduces frustration and misunderstandings between patients and clinicians, which in turn helps with more effective treatments. At Addenbrooke’s they collect anonymised information from patients, which helps inform future treatment strategies.

I am delighted the app is ready to be shared worldwide, and to have been able to assist the Relatives Communication Team with the help of colleague Dr Mark Vivian who also has a keen interest in this. Both are important steps forward at this difficult time.

Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust CEO, Shelly Thake, added: “We are so pleased to have been able to fund and support ideas like the MyICUVoice app that obviously mean so much to our patients and their families. Our recent funding of 45 iPads for use in the hospital has also helped patients communicate with staff, family and friends at a time when visiting isn’t allowed. Any help that we receive to further develop MyICUVoice or buy more equipment to enable people to interact again is much appreciated.”

Anyone who wants to learn more about the app can view a video at  or Anyone who wants to make a donation to ACT to help MyICUVoice or buy more iPads should visit the appeal .

The following link is to a touching video made for social media by ICU staff