For Immediate Release: September 26, 2018

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Jason Custer Head shot

Jason Custer, MD

“PICU Connect” Allows Family Members to Interact with Loved Ones Even When Not at the Hospital 

The pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) team at the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital (UMCH) is offering a new way for families to interact with their child and the medical team when they can’t be there in person. 

PICU Connect is a mobile cart fashioned with a computer, speaker and 180-degree camera. It allows family members who cannot be at their child’s hospital bedside to feel like they are in the room. The technology uses high-quality, real-time video and audio, and links up through a person’s phone, tablet or computer.

The family member can clearly see, listen and talk with the child and care team, so they aren’t missing important discussions about the child’s care plan. It is HIPAA-compliant, which means it meets federal patient privacy law requirements. The video sessions cannot be recorded or intercepted, and disappear once they are over.

For Courtney Agnoli, the technology provided much-needed reassurance and comfort. Last March, she was on her way to the hospital to be with her newborn, Tessa, who has congenital heart disease. A late-season snow storm had dumped several inches of snow across Maryland, making the roads slippery and dangerous at times.

“My car slid on Route 795 and I remember thinking it wasn’t safe to drive, so I turned around and went back home,” says Agnoli. It would be the first day since Tessa was born that her mother couldn’t be with her. 

While Agnoli couldn’t physically be with her baby that day, the medical team offered them the next best thing. After downloading Zoom, a free videoconferencing app, to her smartphone and inputting a one-time access code, Agnoli “joined” her daughter and the medical team via a secure, private connection. “It was awesome. We could hear each other clearly and I could see everything in the room,” says Agnoli. 

The project is part of the University of Maryland Medical Center’s ICU family-centered care initiative, which recognizes the central importance of family to patients’ recovery, and is led by Giora Netzer, MD, pulmonologist and critical care specialist at UMMC.

“There is a human dimension to video conferencing that’s very different from the phone,” says Dr. Netzer, who is also an associate professor of medicine, epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM). “The video and audio quality is significantly better than if you were to use your phone or tablet.”

“You simply can’t do pediatric care without having the parents there,” says Jason Custer, MD, director of patient safety at UMMC and medical director of the PICU. He came up with the idea for PICU Connect two years ago after talking with faculty and staff about perceived barriers for having families participate in rounds on the hospital unit. “Providing parents with a convenient way to ‘face time’ their kids seemed like a way to alleviate some of their anxiety,” says Dr. Custer, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM). 

After researching existing technologies and coming up empty-handed, Dr. Custer, along with Shari Simone, DNP, CPNP-AC, and his team decided to build it themselves. So they went to the telemedicine department at UMMC and shared their vision for a HIPAA-compliant video communication device.

The telemedicine team confirmed the technology could be built in-house and would cost about $6,000. The PICU team decided to use money raised through their annual golf tournament to cover the cost of creating PICU Connect. The golf tournament was developed specifically to fund these kinds of projects that help improve the patient and family experience in the PICU. 

Since March, the technology has expanded beyond the PICU and is now also offered in the adult medical intensive care unit. The Kamryn Lambert Foundation, longtime supporter of UMCH, generously provided funding for an additional PICU Connect machine. Plans are underway to further expand it to all 11 of UMMC’s intensive care units. 

“Some of our patients are here for months or even a year, and families simply can’t be there all the time due to other responsibilities, such as other children and jobs,” says Steven J. Czinn, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at UMSOM and director of UMCH. “This is truly an innovative way to keep families connected during those times when they can’t be together.” 

“We are just scratching the surface,” says Dr. Custer. “Right now it’s about communication, but it could eventually be used to bring family in for sterile medical procedures when it isn’t possible to have them physically in the room. As a dad myself, this is something I would want my hospital to do. You’ve got other kids, other responsibilities, one parent can’t be here.

With this tool, you can participate in rounds and make sure you’re up to date. That’s perfect.” He notes that the technology could also be used for better communication among care teams when patients are transported to different units or from the ER or another hospital. 

“Using a collaborative approach, this devoted group of faculty and staff have created a better experience for patients and their families, one that can be emulated in intensive care settings across the country,” says E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland Baltimore, the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and dean of UMSOM.

“This will help parents stay connected with our youngest patients when they need caregivers the most.”

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About the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital
The University of Maryland Children’s Hospital at the University of Maryland Medical Center is recognized throughout Maryland and the mid-Atlantic region as a resource for critically and chronically ill children. UMCH physicians and staff excel in combining state-of-the-art medicine with family-centered care. More than 100 physicians specialize in understanding how to treat conditions and diseases in children, including congenital heart conditions, asthma, epilepsy and gastrointestinal disorders. The Children’s Heart Program is ranked among the nation’s top 50 pediatric cardiology and heart surgery centers by U.S. News & World Report. The Drs. Rouben and Violet Jiji Neonatal Intensive Care Unit provides the highest level of care to the tiniest newborns. To learn more about the University of Maryland Children's Hospital, please visit http://umm.edu/programs/childrens

About the University of Maryland School of Medicine

Commemorating its 210th Anniversary, the University of Maryland School of Medicine was chartered in 1807 as the first public medical school in the United States. It continues today as one of the fastest growing, top-tier biomedical research enterprises in the world – with 43 academic departments, centers, institutes, and programs; and a faculty of more than 3,000 physicians, scientists, and allied health professionals, including members of the National Academy of Sciences, and a distinguished recipient of the Albert E. Lasker Award in Medical Research. With an operating budget of more than $1 billion, the School of Medicine works closely in partnership with the University of Maryland Medical Center and Medical System to provide research-intensive, academic and clinically-based care for more than 1.2 million patients each year. The School has over 2,500 students, residents, and fellows, and nearly $450 million in extramural funding, with more than half of its academic departments ranked in the top 20 among all public medical schools in the nation in research funding. As one of the seven professional schools that make up the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus, the School of Medicine has a total workforce of nearly 7,000 individuals. The combined School and Medical System (“University of Maryland Medicine”) has a total budget of $5 billion and an economic impact of nearly $15 billion on the state and local community. The School of Medicine faculty, which ranks as the 8th-highest public medical school in research productivity, is an innovator in translational medicine with 600 active patents and 24 start-up companies. The School works locally, nationally, and globally, with research and treatment facilities in 36 countries around the world. Visit medschool.umaryland.edu.