There aren’t many hospital visitors amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But, if you were to walk through intensive-care units at one New York City hospital, you’d see internet-connected speakers—about the size of a stack of Post-it Notes—affixed to the bedrails of some patient beds.
It’s part of a project by two Weill Cornell Medicine doctors to help family members speak with ICU patients, often intubated or otherwise not able to hold up a phone themselves, from afar.
“The patients could be completely sedated, they could be in a coma,” but families still want to be there with them, said Dr. Marc Schiffman, an interventional radiologist and one of the doctors who spearheaded bringing the devices into ICUs.
The speakers, now in 11 units at Weill Cornell, are part of a two-way communication system from company Relay, originally developed as a walkie-talkie system of sorts for children to stay in touch with their parents throughout the day. Users on one end record snippets of conversation using a mobile app, which are automatically played out loud through the small speaker.
Users on the other end push a button on the device to record a response.
“Whenever (families) have a story they want to recount, they can just talk into their phone,” Schiffman said. “It gives the families a sense of autonomy (and) connection,” even when the patient can’t respond.
The effort, dubbed the VoiceLove Project, began about four months ago, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City.
Families and other visitors were no longer allowed inside Weill Cornell, but still wanted a way to connect with patients who were sick with COVID-19. Initially, that involved a nurse standing in the ICU and holding up a phone or tablet so families could see the patient—a task that took time out of their already busy day, potentially exposed them to COVID-19 and often meant using scarce personal protective equipment.
“It really wasn’t a practical solution,” said Dr. Tamatha Fenster, a minimally invasive gynecologic surgeon.
So Fenster and Schiffman began brainstorming hands-free technologies they could install directly at the bedside. Schiffman drove to a local Target store and bought a few Relay walkie-talkie devices; after testing it with families and patients in the ICU, the two decided it was a “grand slam,” Schiffman said.
Since March, hospitals have been trying new ways to keep patients connected to families at home, said Bill Flatley, senior service delivery manager at consulting firm OST. He said he’s mainly seen hospitals repurpose technology usually used for telemedicine, like tablets and cameras mounted on telemedicine carts.
It’s likely hospitals will have to continue to restrict visitors, at least as long as there’s uncertainty around COVID-19 treatment. So it’s integral for staff to figure out processes that make it easy for families to talk to patients—without putting an additional burden on clinicians or expecting them to serve as tech support.
For Fenster and Schiffman, deploying walkie-talkies in the ICU for the first time took some leg work.
To scale the walkie-talkie system, Schiffman reached out to Relay’s team via the company’s website, and the company agreed to donate roughly 130 devices and waived the per-user subscription fee. The doctors and Relay have continued to work together on best practices for using the devices in ICUs, a use case Relay is marketing and could sell to other hospitals, according to Jon Schniepp, Relay’s senior vice president of marketing.
But Fenster and Schiffman couldn’t just bring walkie-talkies into the ICU; in the hospital setting, there are additional quality and privacy concerns. To address those, the doctors created a disposable case, which made it easier to keep the device sterile and blocked passersby from accidentally pressing the button that would transmit sounds to a family’s Relay app.
The two spent thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to devise the best case design, Fenster said, working with an industrial designer in New Jersey to 3D print different models. The final plastic case, customized with the phrase “VoiceLove” on the front, costs about $10 per case to print and ship.
They’ve started reaching out to acute-care and post-acute facilities in California, Texas and other COVID hot spots to explain how the VoiceLove Project works, hoping to connect other groups with Relay and share the case design. But the doctors say they’re still working out the logistics of getting the equipment to interested organizations