Across the UK, hospices are pulling out all the stops to keep running their vital service for people at end of life – and the loved ones around them – despite the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just as with their NHS counterparts, recent events have meant these charities have had to take very tough decisions in order to protect patients and their families, plus staff, volunteers and the wider community, from infection, as well as fast develop new ways of working that ensure their specialist care continues to reach those who desperately need it.

As pressure mounts on our at home team to make its limited resources stretch further during these difficult times, St Luke’s IT department wasted no time in collaborating with their clinical colleagues to hone an innovative solution that’s helping the multidisciplinary team of doctors, nurses and occupational therapists carry out their crucial work both safely and speedily.

With the NHS granting permission for us to use its tried and tested accuRX system – already used by many hospital trusts and GP surgeries for online consultations and text messaging with patients – St Luke’s has worked across teams and around the clock to adapt the system so patient-centred care can be provided remotely when it is not safe to visit patients at home or when the caseload makes this difficult.

AccuRX video-conferencing is user-friendly and works in much the same way to Skype, making it accessible to patients as well as the professionals responsible for their care. Crucially, though, the information shared – be it a video consultation, a patient’s scan or the details of their prescribed medication – is encrypted so that it cannot be deciphered until it is received by its intended recipient.

Aaron Smallshaw, Group Head of IT for St Luke’s and Rowcroft Hospice in Torbay, said: “Given the very serious nature of COVID-19 and the threat it presents to vulnerable patients in particular, we were determined to act quickly to do whatever we could to help ensure their safety and that of our staff looking after them.

“The beauty of accuRX is that it’s already working really well within the NHS as a safe and secure way of sharing information between clinical staff and between them and their patients. Our focus has been on adapting and testing it so that it works equally well for our hospice team, enabling them to provide their outstanding patient-centred care remotely, and reducing unnecessary visits to patients’ homes, which helps keep everyone safe.

“In usual circumstances, it could take months to consult with our stakeholders and build, configure and test a new system, but with the endorsement of the senior management team at the hospice we were able to prioritise our work on accuRX above other duties and fast-track its implementation here within just a couple of weeks.

“It has taken a phenomenal hospice-wide effort and the fact that the system is already helping staff work even more efficiently in ways that ensure their patients’ peace of mind is testament to fantastic inter-departmental working, particularly between IT and our clinical colleagues in the frontline of caring for patients in these challenging times.”

Jen Nicholls, Clinical Nurse Specialist at St Luke’s, is among the first of our clinical staff to use the new system from her home. She said: “Now more than ever, it’s really important we keep as much contact as possible with our patients and their families.

“I’ve already used accuRX with a patient and was delighted it was so easy for them to connect. The picture and sound were clear and I was able to carry out my assessment by them pointing to the site of their pain and from me observing their skin colour and general appearance. I was also able to see their medication boxes on screen and check the dosage, and the patient’s wife held his prescription chart in front of the screen so I could confirm it was correct and up to date.

“I was really impressed by how straightforward everything was and I can see how using the system both now and in the future will have benefits for our service and the people we look after. It’s a game-changer that will enhance our specialist end of life care.”

Sioned Evans, Community Consultant at St Luke’s, said: “Through Project Echo we’ve already been using technology to share our specialist skills with local care home staff and the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust. Now accuRX will help us in our one-to-one consultations with our patients in a way that is reassuring to them and their families while easing pressure on our precious resources. I couldn’t be more proud of the way our teams have risen to the challenge and come together to make it happen so quickly.”