How technology is giving ICU patients a voice

06 November 2020


For physically weak, voiceless and ventilated patients, communication can be extremely difficult. To help such patients overcome this barrier, a team of specialists developed myICUvoice – a symptom management and communication tool for ICU patients. We take a look at how this technology and others are changing ICU experience for patients.

For patients in intensive care units (ICUs), communication can be a real challenge. Despite being fully conscious, many are intubated and incapable of speech, meaning they struggle to express their needs. As studies have shown, they tend to rely on head nods, gestures, mouthing words and, less commonly, writing. However, some patients are too weak for this to be an option.

At best, this is extremely frustrating for the patients, their caregivers and families. At worst, it can be a real source of distress and can contribute to the development of ongoing mental health problems. More than a fifth of those who have survived intensive care suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while 30% are left with anxiety and 40% with depression.

Assistive communication tools for ICU patients do exist, ranging from the low tech (eye gaze boards, alphabet boards etc) to high-tech, specialised devices. According to one 2015 study, around half of all patients on ventilators could be helped by these kinds of tools. However, patient communication devices are not consistently available in ICUs, for reasons that researchers are just starting to explore.

myICUvoice: hearing patients’ side of the story

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, one UK hospital took matters into its own hands, rolling out an app called myICUvoice. The app, designed by an ICU doctor and trialled at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge, uses touchscreen technology on an iPad to facilitate communication with patients.

“If you are in intensive care and you can’t explain or communicate even your most basic symptoms, thoughts or needs, imagine how horrific, distressing and frustrating that must be,” said Dr Tim Baker, who developed the app. “I wanted patients to be able to communicate about how they are doing and feeling, and hear their side of the story.”

The app enables patients to express symptoms and needs that ICU staff would otherwise miss. In a video for BBC News, patient Carole Guilliano describes it as a ‘godsend’. Unable to talk after a 12-hour operation, she taps on various icons to explain her mood, the location of her pain and the quality of her breathing. She also uses a type-to-speak function to chat to hospital staff.

Doctors and nurses have benefited too. Dr Mark Jeffreys, who used the app with Covid-19 patients, said: “One of our patients used myICUvoice to ask about her son. It was only then that we realised she had become convinced he had died – and we were able to get him on a video call later that day to reassure her.”

The app was designed using a £40,000 development grant from the Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust. In addition to the patient communication tools, it features a Nurse Zone that nurses can use to log symptoms. Over time, the patient data will be analysed at a population level to build a better understanding of these symptoms, and allow nurses to pre-emptively treat them.

Published by on October 22, 2020

Image by Shutterstock


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