FACEBOOK PORTAL FOUND TO REDUCE SOCIAL ISOLATION IN NHS FUNDED PROJECT

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A national pilot project conducted this year in Staffordshire has produced results indicating that the use of the Facebook Portal device by vulnerable people and residents of care homes, during the Covid-19 pandemic, substantially reduced feelings of separation, loneliness, and isolation.

Beginning in early 2020, at the initial height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the project was supported by NHSX and Accenture, with West Midlands based NHS online medical portal partner – digihealthwell, participating.

The aim of the project was to provide Facebook Portals, a smart device which allows the user to make video calls, to individuals that had become socially isolated, or whose social interactions had been severely reduced due to the restrictions that had been brought in to control the spread of Covid-19.

digihealthwell were allocated 63 Facebook Portals, to be distributed across Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire, with a further 119 devices allocated to the Adult Social Care team at Staffordshire County Council, to be distributed across the remaining areas of Staffordshire.

The project focused mainly on providing devices to residents of care homes and supported living environments, along with individuals and families who were shielding. digihealthwell allocated 50 of their Facebook Portals to care homes, while the remaining 13 devices were placed in individual residences for household use.

The deployment of the Facebook Portals was contactless, and the devices were accompanied by ‘how to guides’, in both hard copy and electronic formats, which included guidance on using the integral voice activated assistant, Alexa, and if necessary, technical support from Wavemaker, a community partner organisation.

Shortly after receiving their devices the participants were contacted to ensure the installation had gone well, and that they did not require any technical assistance.

Participants were then contacted on a monthly basis from June to September, to determine their experiences with the devices. The most common utilisation of the devices was for video call conversations with family and friends, with 94% of participants reporting that they had used the devices for this. 19% of the participants also reported using the devices for planned

conversations with health professionals, while 17% used the devices for conversations with social care professionals, and 16% of the participants used the device’s voice activated assistant to provide medication reminders and other self-care assistance.

Staff in care homes that had received devices reported improved outcomes for residents who were able to hear and speak to loved ones for the first time in weeks, with some even reporting that residents seemed to be benefiting more from regular interactions with friends and family via the devices, than they had from less frequent face to face visits prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The devices have also been used in end-of-life care, enabling relatives to see and speak to dying residents, when in person visiting would not have been allowed or possible.

When the Facebook Portal has been used in domestic situations, users also reported improvements in wellbeing brought on by regular engagement with relatives via the device. Particularly when relatives were themselves isolating or shielding, or when these interactions enabled the user to interact with their grandchildren.

Use of the device’s voice activated assistant, Alexa, was mainly reported in domestic households, particularly by people who live alone. In such situations participants were reported to refer to Alexa as a sort of ‘friend at home’. This group of participants reported that the device had had a positive impact on their feelings of separation, loneliness, and isolation.

Additionally, relatives of care home residents were found to have been reassured by the use of the Facebook Portal, as the device allowed them to see their relatives ‘in situ’, rather than just via pictures and videos sent by care home staff.

It was reported that the distribution of the Facebook Portals not only aided in the prevention of social isolation, and assisted in end-of-life care, the devices also helped to build confidence among participants, in the independent use of digital technology. Participants who had previously avoided using technology found themselves comfortably using the devices to communicate with family or interact with Alexa.

Local Project Lead, David Sanzeri, summed up the project’s findings; “What is exciting about the Facebook Portal is that as well as being an excellent piece of kit it shows clearly the terrific beneficial impact the use of digital communication can have on people who would otherwise be isolated”.

This successful pilot study provides encouraging results, helping to set a precedent for the wider introduction of digital technology in healthcare environments.

Deborah Brackstone, Countywide Day Opportunities Manager at Specialist Day Opportunities, (a division of Staffordshire County Council), commented, “At the start of lockdown, we needed to consider how we would offer a service to our service users. The thought that service users and carers would not be receiving any support was a scary prospect. We decided to use Facebook portals as they offer sensory experiences.

Deborah continues, not only do our service users enjoy the virtual interactions, but carers thoroughly enjoy the experience too. At this stage it would appear to be one of the successful adaptations resulting from the Covid-19 challenge. The initial success has excited our creativity and we have more ideas to develop in the future including the use of Facebook portal TV’s”.

The National evaluation of the Facebook Portal Pilot was reported in August 2020; a copy of the findings, conclusions, and recommendations of the evaluation can be found here: https://www.digihealthwell.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Facebook-Portal-national-pilot-evaluation-July-2020.pptx.pdf

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