Hospitals are relaxing strict bans on smartphones and tablets in intensive care during the coronavirus pandemic.
Those in hospital with Covid-19 are often not allowed to have visitors, even their closest relatives.
One charity is aiming to provide 4G-enabled tablets to every intensive care unit in the UK, while some ICUs now encourage people to bring their phones.
Such moves can help alleviate the stress of separation – and for some, allow families to say their goodbyes.
The Life Lines project was set up by nursing expert Prof Louise Rose and critical care consultant Dr Joel Meyer.
“To reduce the risk of infection, hospitals are currently restricting visitors, which means many patients don’t have any contact with their relatives once admitted to intensive care,” said Dr Meyer.
“Not being able to connect with loved ones is such a cruel element of this pandemic.
“Although ICU patients are usually sedated, hearing a loved one’s voice can be extremely comforting.”
Also involved is Michel Paquet, chief executive of Aetonix – a firm whose video-conferencing platform is used by the health sector. BT, along with Google and Samsung, is providing 4G-enabled tablets.
Disability charity the True Colours Trust and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation have already contributed £1m, and the project hopes to raise more.
Meanwhile, in Milton Keynes, hospital staff are using a system developed by Nye Health to allow patients to communicate with loved ones.
The team has been given 40 mobile phones by local telecoms firm Boxx Communications.
Dr Jamie Strachan, a consultant in critical care, said: “This is a scary time for many. For patients unwell in hospital at the moment, not being able to see their loved one is heartbreaking. That’s why I knew we needed a better way of ensuring both patients and staff could stay connected to relatives when they can’t visit in person.”
One doctor, who did not want to be identified, told the BBC there had been a “massive culture shift” in intensive care units since the coronavirus crisis, from strict policies of not allowing any devices to a current “pragmatism” which sees doctors and nurses encourage patients to bring their own devices, and even chargers, in order to stay in touch with their families.
Doctors and nurses are not allowed to take phones or other personal devices into ICUs because of the risk of passing on infections.
The Life Line tablets being made available to patients will remain in the units and come with wipeable cases to ensure they can be kept clean.
Nicola Dias, operations manager at bereavement charity Cruse, said any attempt to improve communication between relatives could help play a vital role in the grieving process.
“During this time of social distancing, whilst absolutely the right thing to be doing, many families are facing the incredibly distressing concept of not being able to say goodbye to loved ones.
“When you feel you have no control over how you can experience those last moments with someone, this can have a profound impact on the grieving process.
“Technology is being utilised more and more during this crisis, whether that’s simply being able to speak to someone over the phone, live-stream funerals or holding digital memorials for people that have died.”