In May, Melissa Nadeau’s 2-year-old son underwent spinal surgery at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. Nadeau was anxious.
“He’s had surgery before,” she told The Daily Beast. “I had absolutely no clue what was going on, I was pacing a lot. My nerves were heightened.”
But Nadeau’s frayed nerves were a little calmer with an app. EASE, a messaging application, was created in 2013 after a group of pediatric surgeons started texting updates from within the operating room and saw immediate benefits from more contact with worried parents.
“They opened a window to the operating room, and saw that positive reaction from families,” Patrick de la Roza, CEO at EASE applications, told The Daily Beast. The surgeons ran a 50-person research study, which showed the same positive outcomes, and decided to create a formal product for use in hospitals.
Nadeau said it was comforting to get personal messages from the surgical team throughout the three hours her son spent in the operating room. “They took my kid back for major surgery, but kept me in the loop. I felt like I was part of the team, and still able to be ‘Mom’ in the operating room,” she said. “It helped calm a tense situation.”
The app is simple, essentially a text messaging interface that opens a secure line of communication between surgeons and waiting families.
While developing the app, de la Roza said, one of the biggest challenges was ensuring that it complied with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA, which protect patient privacy. HIPPA requires extensive data encryption for any medical information, so it’s not enough that the app can just send messages—it has to send them securely.
Circulating nurses in the operating rooms take charge of the app, sending text message updates and—if the hospital chooses to offer them, and the patients are interested—photo and videos of the patient. The EASE team recommends updates every 30 minutes, because their internal research shows that family anxiety goes up if they haven’t heard from the surgical team around each half hour. Families can choose to have messages go to family and friends who aren’t at the hospital, as well.
So far, de la Roza says that EASE has quantifiably improved patient satisfaction scores at hospitals, which are key metrics for administrators.
“You look at hospitals spending millions on fancy atriums, lobbies, all of which don’t really move the needle. This improves satisfaction, and hospital loyalty, and those are very important,” he said. “Hospitals have been taking a very strategic approach to patient satisfaction initiatives, and EASE is part of that overall strategy.”
The Heart Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital began using EASE in October 2014, and compared their success with family updates and family satisfaction during the first year after implementation to the year prior. The surgical teams saw significant improvement in timely communication with families, and found that the percentage of families rating their experience as “very good” went from 80 to 97 percent, according to data presented at the 2016 American Association for Thoracic Surgery conference. Texas Children’s Hospital tracked similar outcomes after starting to use EASE, and also found patient satisfaction improve.
Cost to the hospital for the program varies based on the number of operating rooms, but ranges from $20,000 to the high six-figures, de la Roza said. The service is free to patients.
Connecticut Children’s Medical Center started using EASE about a year ago. “One of our regular operating room nurses really felt like she wanted a quick, easy way to let families know, up-to-date, what was happening in the operating room,” Mary McLaughlin, director of perioperative services at Connecticut Children’s, told The Daily Beast.
Coincidentally, the head of the pediatric intensive care unit had earlier brought a similar request to the hospital. EASE fit the bill, and after an extensive review from the legal and compliance teams, they introduced the idea to surgical leadership.
“They were very much on board,” McLaughlin said. “We showed the possibilities. They were a bit nervous about the video piece, but still on board.”
At Connecticut Children’s, the option to use the app is available for patients undergoing any procedure longer than an hour. The nurses in the operating room use it to send regular text updates to families, but don’t send photos or videos of the procedure (though that’s an option to start doing later on). They use video at the end of the operation, to film the surgeon relaying the message that everything went well, and that they’ll be out to speak to the family soon.
The app doesn’t replace the in-person updates that Connecticut Children’s already provides to waiting families—normally, a nurse circulates through the waiting area each our providing updates. “We haven’t stopped doing that, but this really augments it,” McLaughlin said.
EASE also isn’t limited to surgery, and de la Roza said it can also be used in intensive care units to give updates to families who might not be able to visit in person regularly. “In the neonatal ICU, babies might be there for months, and it’s a challenge,” he said. “Texting, and communication with video and pictures, is so common now, I think it’s natural to extend into the hospital.”
EASE helps loved ones feel less anchored to the waiting room and able to be a bit more relaxed in a trying time. “They feel as though they can go to the bathroom, or get something to eat,” McLaughlin said. Because the messages can go out to family members and friends who aren’t at the hospital, the app also takes the onus off of a waiting loved one to relay updates.
The app, though, isn’t used to deliver anything but positive, normal news. “EASE is not to deliver any news that’s unusual, that would require a face-to-face,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said that about 60 to 70 percent of the families offered the service use it—some don’t want to for a variety of reasons, and sometimes people don’t have a phone that’s compatible, she said.
But those who do use the app are thrilled with the experience, McLaughlin said. “We see it in our own patient experience surveys,” she said, and EASE conducts in-app surveys, as well.
Nadeau credits EASE with helping her through a difficult time. She said that she’d want to use EASE for any additional surgeries he might have. “[Connecticut Children’s] is great with my son, but this makes them super with the parents. It’s one thing to take care of my son, but to include me in that is just great,” she said.
That’s exactly the long-term goal for EASE. “There’s no reason for anyone to have to sit in a waiting room wondering what’s going on,” de la Roza said. “The technology is there.”