Rory Heath: Can we use digital technologies to alleviate loneliness in hospitals?

Covid-19 has profoundly and rapidly changed the way that we communicate. The #FlattenTheCurve movement has condensed our previously separate spheres of work, socialising, and family life into our homes. This is only made possible by the availability and uptake of digital messaging or video-conferencing services such as Whatsapp or Zoom. I may be miles away from my family or only just down the road from my friends, but these distances do not matter much now that I cannot leave the house—the only distance that matters now is my proximity to my smartphone.

Even healthcare has adopted digital communication in a previously unseen way. Almost all clinics are being performed by telephone. Departmental meetings are held using video calls. Updated versions of my evolving rota are sent to me by WhatsApp. I hadn’t thought that remote working in a tertiary centre would be possible on a wide scale, but the covid-19 pandemic is the new mother of invention and has proven me wrong.

Why then are we failing to provide patients and their families an effective way of communicating when a loved one has been admitted to hospital?

My hospital and many others do not allow visitors. Recently, an older man was admitted into hospital with an non-covid related illness. The man turned to say goodbye to his wife and daughter. The policy won’t allow them to see him until he is discharged. In times like these, they might not have understood the significance of this goodbye, but perhaps they did. 

Soon after we admitted an older woman via the surgical take. She was moribund and had hours to live. The ward allowed the patient’s son to visit to say his goodbyes, provided he did so within an exceptional and arbitrary 30 minute window. By the time the son had spoken with the surgical registrar about his mother’s certain mortality, there were only 15 minutes left on the clock. 15 minutes to hold his mother’s hand. When he left he pleaded with the healthcare assistant to be with his mother when she died. 

These are only two examples of heartbreak during the covid-19 pandemic. Other doctors will have more. The “No Visitors” policy is designed with safety in mind, but carries the cruel sacrifice of aloneness at key moments of life and death. This emotional trauma will be long held by the survivors of this pandemic and will shape their interactions with healthcare in the future. We are in danger of making hospitals a black box into which people disappear. 

We cannot completely overturn the “No Visitors” policy, but we can do more to alleviate the suffering of isolation. Under this policy, we might not be able to allow a son to hold his mother’s hand at death, but we might be able to allow a daughter to see her father recovering well after his operation. We have the digital tools needed. We are innovative. We have proven that we can combine these with success to adapt to the new constraints of covid-19 isolation. We need to prove that we can use digital technology to maintain the connectedness of our humanity. We will surely benefit now, but like the adoption of many of these innovations, we will continue to benefit after the covid-19 storm has passed. 

Rory Heath is a Foundation Year 2 trainee. Twitter: @roryjheath