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Keeping Our Veterans Connected and Engaged During the Pandemic

Posted by Jaime Brito on November 9, 2020

When COVID-19 hit a Southern VA Medical Center back in March and the facility was forced to suspend relatives’ visits to the Community Living Center (CLC), the suspension took a gigantic toll on the morale and spirits of the CLC population. Making things worse, even the beloved CLC recreational, speech, and physical therapists were not allowed onsite. The CLC residents suddenly lost family interactions, daily activities, and the necessary love and care to get through their days. They were also forced to stay in their rooms to reduce the chances of spreading the virus. 

As someone put it back then: "The isolation is killing our Veterans."

The situation propelled the GetWellNetwork team to speed up efforts to obtain an approval from the VA Office of Information and Technology (OIT) to provide an avenue for the Veterans to keep in contact with their loved ones and also with staff members (therapists, nutritionists, etc.) that were not being allowed in patient units.

 

Video chat feature deployment

Once GetWellNetwork got the green light, the Video Chat feature was implemented hospital-wide, allowing Veterans to make video calls through Skype, Google Hangouts and Facebook Messenger with only a few clicks.

 

 

The Community Living Center Recreational Therapy Team (CLC RCAT) was the first group at this facility to partner with GetWellNetwork to rapidly expand the feature and get the most from it. Their enthusiasm, along with GetWellNetwork’s expertise, set the facility on the path to creating Skype accounts for the Veterans and staff members in the CLC, developing user guides, training the staff on how to use and troubleshoot the feature, advising relatives on how to connect with the Veterans, and more. This CLC RCAT team was committed to doing something great; from the very first meeting, they described the CLC residents as like family to them. 

Many laughs, tears, and happy faces went through the Video Chat feature, and relatives, Veterans, and staff members immediately began to provide great feedback. One staff member shared a sample success story: 

“We were just able to complete a Skype call between a resident and his daughter. They were both very appreciative. The daughter was very happy to see her dad, she continued to thank us for making it happen and stated she feels relieved to see how well her dad is doing.”

This feature brought happiness and hope to many Veterans and reminded them that the world had not forgotten them during a difficult time. Another staff member reflected on the impact that the Video Chat feature had on CLC residents:

“Today was a very productive day with getting CLC residents connected and using their Skype accounts. Three residents were able to interact in a Recreation Therapy session. It was gratifying to see their reactions through the camera, one of them became teary [eyed] when he saw our faces on the screen, another was at a loss for words, and the last one was swaying along to familiar music. Each individual call touched us in a special way, thank you for making this happen.”

Over the next few months after launch, more departments within this specific VA saw the impact of Video Chat and were able to incorporate it into their workflows and best practices.

 

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YouTube channels/national recognition

In the middle of rolling out the Video Chat feature, and while looking for more ways to keep Veterans engaged during the pandemic, the idea of creating a CLC RCAT YouTube channel on our system came up and, once live, was also a great success. Through this channel the therapists created educational and entertainment videos (most with themselves in them) that brought back that connection and togetherness with their populations. 

The YouTube channel and the Video Chat became such hits within the CLC Units that the CLC RCAT was asked to virtually share their experiences using the GetWellNetwork system with multiple VAs across the nation and got recognition from the VA leadership in Washington. Here is a portion of an email that goes into the details of their work:

“During this time of COVID-19, the recreational therapy staff in the [Southern] VA Community Living Center created a YouTube Channel, Skype accounts, and is currently providing comfort calls.

The YouTube channel includes only original content created by CLC staff specifically for the residents. Some of the videos include Spanish classes, word of the day, trivia, music and exercises. The residents are included in the planning of the videos. For example, for the "word of the day" videos, one of our CLC residents provides the words to be used. 

We worked with the GetWellNetwork staff to create a shortcut tile for the residents to have easy access to the channel. We use the channel/videos for interventions, teaching new skills such as Spanish, providing cognitive stimulation with trivia, maintaining physical functioning through exercise.

We have also created Skype accounts for the residents to be able to participate in face-to-face interventions and to stay in touch with family members. Some of the face-to-face interventions include taking the resident for a virtual walk, painting classes, and exercise classes.

We also call them at bedside to listen to music, play trivia, teach Spanish, provide support and encourage independent leisure pursuits.”

Many of the facilities that heard about the impact these initiatives were having on the Veterans reached out to GetWellNetwork and the CLC Leadership about replicating the magic that was created at this VA through the GetWellNetwork/CLC Team partnership. 

Later on, three more therapy departments (Music, Speech, and Physical/Occupational) within this VA also decided to create their own YouTube channels to fill the gap created by COVID-19. 

 

 

Continuing additions

The pandemic has also spurred other innovations in the GetWellNetwork technology that have been beneficial to our Veterans. These include:

  • The “Learn about Coronavirus” space that provides a direct link to the CDC website to get up-to-date information and access to COVID-19 related videos
  • Icons to access the digital versions of the two most popular newspapers in the area 
  • An icon to access the “Westerns” YouTube channel with thousands of movies in this genre, which has huge popularity within our population.

The bottom line

The list of reports provided every month is steadily growing, with the addition of a report that reflects the usage of each newly implemented space/tile per unit. This has allowed the hospital and GetWellNetwork to get a clear idea how each unit is using the different new initiatives. 

Many CLC staff members have mentioned during this pandemic journey that they do not know what the Veterans would have done in these troubling times without the GetWellNetwork collaboration. The ability to connect, to learn, to engage, and to be entertained through the GetWellNetwork system became an ally and an asset to the Veterans, and a much needed resource during a difficult time.

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