West Suffolk Hospital is utilising digital technology in the fight against COVID-19

Like every NHS Trust in the country, the West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust’s (WSFT) priority in its coronavirus response is to keep patients, staff and the public as safe as possible.

But that has come with some difficult measures, like tighter visiting restrictions and postponing some face-to-face appointments, to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

As a global digital exemplar however, WSFT is determined to utilise digital technology in the best way, from video consultations to better home working facilities for staff, to make sure the right people stay up-to-date – and that the impact on patients and their loved ones is minimised as far as possible.

The Trust’s patient advice and liaison service (PALS) has extended its support via a live webchat on the Trust’s website, allowing its “digital” visitors to get immediate answers to any queries they have. This feature, available from 8.00 to 8pm seven days a week, enables a member of the public to speak directly to the PALS team, or even easier, to find an answer to their query via a selected list of frequently asked questions.

Cassia Nice, head of patient experience at WSFT, said: “We hope this is going to be really useful for our community, and help them to get answers to their questions quickly to reduce any worry or anxiety in what we know is a troubling time. I am so proud of the work my colleagues have done to set up and resource this service, it’s a real group effort behind the scenes.”

And that’s not all the PALS team have set up; this week a virtual clinical helpline has been launched for relatives of patients to call when they would like an update on how their loved one is doing.

“We know our new visiting restrictions can make it harder to keep up to date,” Cassia said. “The helpline team is supported by nurses and therapists who have access to all the information needed. As well as being a quick and easy route for relatives to see how their loved one is getting on, it will free up nursing colleagues on the wards to focus on what they do best – providing the wonderful care.”

The Trust is also looking to use iPads as a way of lessening the impact of loneliness and stress during the current climate. By giving patients who might not have their own technology the use of the tablet, they will be able to video call their families, giving them crucial face-to-face experiences at a time where being away from loved-ones is very difficult. The Trust hopes to launch this “keeping in touch” initiative in the coming weeks.

Staff in the community and the hospital are also utilising consultation software to speak to and see patients remotely where appropriate, so that clinical care can continue in a way that respects social distancing. Work is going ahead on a digital information hub for staff which can be accessed on-site, at home or in the community from any computer, phone or tablet – so they can keep up with the latest information on the move.

“Going digital” has even extended to the Trust’s chaplaincy, who are offering a listening ear via video call to patients who are experiencing worry while being away from friends and family.

Rev Stephen Griffiths, deputy lead chaplain at WSFT, said: “A stay in hospital can be a worrying time, both emotionally and spiritually. By giving an isolated patient an iPad, our chaplaincy team at the hospital are able to speak to them from another room. Myself and my colleagues are on call 24/7 so if an isolated patient asks a staff member on the ward to get in contact with us, we can log on from home and speak to them within minutes.”

Bosses at the hospital have been quick to praise the ingenuity and speed of the IT team within the Trust, with many colleagues needing the rapid ability to work from home to support national guidance.

Mike Bone, chief information officer at WSFT, said: “The commitment and skill that our IT team have shown over the last few weeks has been incredible. Moving a high amount of staff from locations across the community and at the hospital to their homes digitally has been a huge effort and I have to commend the work of everyone in the team.”

The praise of the dedication of the teams at the Trust has been echoed by chief executive Dr Stephen Dunn, who added: “The work ethic, creativity, and willingness of everyone at the hospital and in the community to work together differently to maintain our services and standards has been brilliant.

“By utilising new tools like video messaging, as well as those already established like our digital bleep replacement system, Medic Bleep, we are showing that we can do things differently in trying circumstances to deliver services and ensure the safety of our patients and staff. We will continue to use digital technologies and information to improve our services.”

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