“PICU Connect” Allows Family Members to Interact with Loved Ones in Intensive Care

Most of us are familiar with video calls on our phones and laptops. The technology has connected kids at college to parents in other states, and allowed service members serving overseas to stay in touch with family.

Recently, the doctors at the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital created their own version, PICU Connect, to allow families with a child in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) to interact with their child and the medical team when they can’t be there in person. “You simply can’t do pediatric care without having the parents there,” says Jason Custer, M.D., director of patient safety at UMMC and medical director of the PICU.

Custer came up with the idea for PICU Connect two years ago after talking with faculty and staff about perceived barriers to having families participate in rounds on the hospital unit. “Providing parents with a convenient way to ‘facetime’ their kids seemed like a way to alleviate some of their anxiety,” says Dr. Custer, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

After researching existing technologies and not finding something compatible for their needs, Dr. Custer, along with Shari Simone, DNP, CPNP-AC, and his team, decided to create their own. The team approached the telemedicine department at UMMC and shared their vision for a HIPAA-compliant video communication device. The telemedicine team confirmed the technology could be built in-house and would cost about $6,000. The team used funds raised through its annual golf tournament to cover the cost of PICU Connect.

For one local family, the technology has provided much-needed comfort. Last March, Courtney Agnoli was on her way to the hospital to be with her newborn, Tessa, who has congenital heart disease. A late-season snowstorm had dumped several inches of snow across Maryland, making driving conditions hazardous. “My car slid on Route 795 and I remember thinking it wasn’t safe to drive, so I turned around and went back home,” says Agnoli. It was the first day since Tessa was born that her mother did not make it to the hospital.

Agnoli couldn’t physically be with Tessa that day, so the medical team offered the next best thing. After downloading Zoom, a free video conferencing app, to her phone and inputting a one-time access code, Agnoli “joined” her daughter and the medical team via a secure, private connection. “It was awesome. We could hear each other clearly and I could see everything in the room,” says Agnoli.

“We are just scratching the surface,” says Dr. Custer. “Right now it’s about communication, but it could eventually be used to bring the family in for sterile medical procedures when it isn’t possible to have them physically in the room. As a dad myself, this is something I would want my hospital to do.”

Since March, PICU Connect has expanded to other areas of the hospital and is now offered in the adult ICU. The Kamryn Lambert Foundation, a local nonprofit that supports UMCH, has provided funding for another PICU Connect machine. Plans are underway to expand it to all 11 of UMMC’s ICUs.

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