Robot connects isolated Covid patients with loved ones at Tygerberg ICU

Dr Kerry Louw of Tygerbeg Hospital with Quintin the robot.
Dr Kerry Louw of Tygerbeg Hospital with Quintin the robot.
Image: Damien Schumann

Technology, in the form of a robot named Quintin, is helping families get in touch virtually with their loved ones who have been isolated at Tygerberg Hospital’s Covid-19 intensive care unit (ICU).

In some cases, the robot has helped families say their last goodbyes to their loved ones.

Quintin, according to the hospital in Cape Town, is a Double Robotics robot that looks like a computer tablet on wheels. It is equipped to do video and voice calls using the WhatsApp service, or regular phone calls, allowing family members to dial in to “visit” patients in the ICU.

The robot can be remotely steered using an app, and therefore hospital staff do not have to physically enter the ward, thereby limiting the risk of infection, saving on personal protective equipment (PPE) and freeing up their time to focus on other tasks.

“Enabling contact between patients and their families has been a 'humanising process',” said Dr Kerry Louw, a psychiatrist at Stellenbosch University’s faculty of medicine and health sciences (FMHS) and Tygerberg Hospital.

She likened the experience of being a patient in an ICU to “a form of psychological anguish which involves a fear of death, unexpected pain and sensory deprivation, as well as overstimulation”.

According to Louw, ICU patients are not only physically ill, but often also suffer psychologically, because they are isolated from their families, are sleep-deprived due to the constant beeping of machines, and experience no natural light or air movement.

“Some patients stay in an ICU for long periods of time, and it becomes really difficult for them,” she said.

Quintin the robot is helping to put concerned family members in touch with ICU patients who have had to be isolated. Quintin, a Double Robotics robot that looks like a computer tablet on wheels, has now been equipped to do video and voice calls using the freely available WhatsApp service, or regular phone calls, to which family members can dial in to ‘visit’ patients in the Covid-19 ICU.

“It’s heart-warming to see the smiles once patients have connected with their families. It has made such a difference.

“In some cases, the patients have not been awake while the family communicates with them, but it has still been meaningful. We have been able to organise some end-of-life conversations for people to say goodbye. One family wanted to be present at the moment of passing and we enabled them to be there with the patient.”

When he is on call, Quintin moves over to the patient and sometimes stays with them for hours while the family visits virtually.

“I always explain to the families beforehand what to expect and what it looks like to see someone who is intubated, as it can be a shock. Some families don’t want visual contact and prefer audio contact,” said Louw.

“We always check in with the patient to see how they are doing after engaging with their families. We also check in with the families, who can be very emotional after they’ve connected with the patient.”

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