With a shared desire to help people, it’s no surprise that UCSF medical students and residents sought new ways to serve during the COVID-19 pandemic. So when visitor restrictions began limiting patient support at San Francisco hospitals, a group of UCSF residents and students saw the opportunity to connect patients and families in a new way.

“We immediately saw that visitor restrictions caused emotional distress for patients and their loved ones, as well as moral distress for providers, and wanted to alleviate some of that suffering,“

Connecting During COVID is a collaboration between residents and medical students at the three UCSF-affiliated hospitals in the city. Initially seeking donated tablets from their own networks, the group has collected over 100 tablets, raised over $10,000, and secured additional funding to ensure video visits would be accessible to all patients, regardless of their own access to technology.

And at ZSFG, it became apparent that there wasn’t the necessary tech on campus to meet the new need for patient video conferencing. The initial collection of donated tablets quickly made a big difference. The group of six Internal Medicine residents and over 20 medical students got to work on the next hurdle – how to get the tablets into patients’ hands. And quickly became known as the Tablet Team.

The group quickly designed a new type of consult service to ensure every patient was able to access video visits, without putting a strain on providers. Medical students and residents staffed a pager that could be called to facilitate video calls for patients throughout most of the hospital. (COVID-positive units were not included in this consult service due to restrictions on student involvement.)

The Tablet Team has already witnessed the meaningful connections from these visits. With over 250 video calls over the past two months, they felt the gratitude of patients being able to connect with loved ones during very difficult times. They also saw the immense benefit of including family members in goals of care discussions, end-of-life decisions, and at time of death.

And in some cases, the ability to include family members from all over the world improved patients’ care greatly. Through video calls, families helped doctors assess baseline neurologic functioning, encouraged their loved ones during sessions with physical therapy, and provided reorientation in familiar voices and native languages.

“Video calls have allowed family members to see their loved ones doing well and meet the nurses, physical therapists, and doctors who were providing great care. I think our service helped promote trust in our hospital and hopefully showed families that the standard of care continued despite the pandemic we are facing.”

The impact of this project has also garnered amazing support from the community. Valuing the importance of access to technology as a health equity issue, Google donated Pixel Slate tablets to the ZSFG Care Experience team, providing the hardware to help facilitate ongoing communication between patients and their families. The donation will allow each inpatient unit at ZSFG to have tablets available for their patients, including COVID units. And now that medical students are returning to clerkships, ZSFG’s Care Experience Team will lead ongoing work to expand access to tablets at ZSFG.

As communications technology continues to play a larger role in the future of healthcare, it is vital to ensure the most vulnerable have access to the new tools of medicine. Through support from the ZSFG COVID-19 Fund, the hospital has been able to increase the capacity of the hospital’s WIFI system to meet these new demands, building out a stronger infrastructure for the long term.