The U.K. government is pulling in tech firms to connect family and friends with isolated residents and patients in care via video call devices and services during the COVID-19 crisis. First to join is Facebook, which is supplying up to 2,050 of its Portal video-calling devices for free to hospitals, care homes and other settings, including hospice, in-patient learning disability and autism units. The logistical rollout will be supported by Accenture.
Fifty of the devices have already been deployed to pilot sites in Surrey, with Manchester, Newcastle and London and other areas to follow.
Iain O’Neil, NHSX Digital Transformation Director, said in a statement: “Technology companies big and small continue to pledge their resources and expertise to support our NHS and social care system in these unprecedented times. We are working hard to find and develop services that meet people’s equally unprecedented needs. Technology has never been so important to providing one of life’s most essential things — the ability to communicate with the people we love regardless of where they are.”
The NHSX said it is working with “a range of technology companies to support the NHS and social care system.”
Freddy Abnousi, MD, Head of Health Technology, Facebook said in a statement: “We designed Portal to give people an easy way to connect and be more present with their loved ones…That’s why we are piloting a program with NHSX to provide Portal devices in hospitals and other care settings to support patients and help reduce social isolation.”
Additional solutions to be deployed under the scheme include enabling health and care staff to work remotely if needed; improving communication between clinical and care teams; shifting hospital outpatients to virtual appointments; and accelerating the use of online and video consultations within GP and primary care services.
Commenting, Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “It is great to see Facebook giving care home residents and patients the devices they need to connect with their family and friends at such a challenging time. The technology sector is rising to the challenge at this moment of national emergency and we in government are working closely with them to help people stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.”
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Facebook and NHSX have agreed that the care homes and care settings involved in the pilot will be able to keep the devices free of charge, and use as they see fit, following the pilot phase.
Where the Portal devices go will be chosen on the basis of their Wi-Fi connectivity and ability to run devices in residents’ rooms or another private location.
At the same time, NHSX said it is exploring connectivity options for care homes without Wi-Fi, including the use of 4G hotspots or data-enabled tablets.
The venues for the portals will be advised on how to set them up by the NHSX, as well as infection control and data protection. Concerns about privacy will be addressed by completing a factory reset on the portal before passing the device to a new user.
A Facebook spokesperson said: “Residents/patients will be supported by care staff to initiate calls to family/friends.” Each care home/care setting will be free to make their own decisions on how best to manage this; for example, whether to pre-arrange specific call times with families in advance. Staff will be supported with easy-to-use setup guidance, device instructions and guidance on infection control. Care homes will also be asked to assist residents who do not wish to use their own personal accounts by setting up a new, generic personal account to be used instead. Where residents or patients wish to use a personal account, the care home will complete a factory reset before passing the device to a new user.
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