Virtual Visitor Program Enables Connections When In-Person Visits Are Not An Option

Honoring Minneapolis VA Health Care System and Martina Malek, FACHE, Associate Director/Chief Experience Officer, Minneapolis VA HCS

The loss of a loved one is painful in normal times; however, during this difficult time of social isolation, the loss of a loved one is even more painful when we don’t have an opportunity to say our final goodbye. The VA family of the Minneapolis VA Health Care System in Minneapolis, Minnesota, leveraged the VA’s Virtual Visitor program to connect a Veteran and his family during his last moments. One of their inpatients was actively dying, and his daughter—who was symptomatic and awaiting her own test results—was in the parking lot and desperately wanted to enter the building to be with her father. Due to current social isolation policies, she was not able to enter the building. Rather distraught, she requested to speak with a patient advocate or someone in leadership. Martina Malek, the Assistant Director and Chief Experience Officer, was heading home, but returned to the facility and parked in the patient parking lot to call the Veteran’s daughter.

While consoling the grieving daughter on her work phone, Ms. Malek used her personal phone to contact staff in her father’s ward asking them to set up the Virtual Visitor which would allow the daughter to FaceTime with her dad. When the daughter was unable to connect with her phone, the ward team came down with a VA Virtual Visitor iPad to make the connection. The daughter, her brother-in-law and nephew huddled around the VA iPad while one of the Minneapolis ward staff activated a hotspot on her phone that allowed the family to share last moments with their loved one.

The VA created the Virtual Visitor program to help ensure that Veteran inpatients can virtually visit with family and friends when in-person visits are not an option. The Minneapolis and other VA hospitals are leveraging this program to bridge the gap during this time of social isolation. The Virtual Visitor program can be set up on the Veteran’s personal device or on a VA-provided iPad. The VA iPads are set up to provide access to video calling apps such as FaceTime, Google Duo or Hangouts, Skype and Zoom, and they do not require personal information from the Veteran patient. In Minneapolis and other facilities that utilize the Virtual Visitor Program, ward staff are trained on the program and have access to technical assistance as needed. They are also trained on safely cleaning, sanitizing and storing the equipment to maintain availability for other Veteran inpatients.

About two weeks after the emotional experience in Minneapolis, Ms. Malek received a text on her work phone from the daughter of the Veteran who had passed. It was a screen capture of the daughter’s Facebook page that included a photo of her and her dad on her wedding day. She had posted a tribute to him and wanted to share it with the VA staff who had helped her. The incredible staff of the Minneapolis VA—empowered by the technology of the Virtual Visitor Program—provided that most important bridge to a Veteran and his daughter as they faced the unthinkable. The ripples of this story have been felt throughout the facility.

“It’s just another example of the remarkable work done by VA staff,” said Ms. Malek.

The VA Virtual Visitor program connects Veterans and family members when social isolation restricts in-person hospital visits. Staff members know the importance of family caregiver support for Veterans in different situations from rehabilitation therapy to ongoing hospital stays.

The VA Virtual Visitor program is a VA best practice that hospitals within the national system can use in many ways from helping Veterans and their families maintain connections through shared love and encouragement to connecting these families during times of transition.

Adapted from a story shared by:
Martina Malek, FACHE
Associate Director/Chief Experience Officer
Minneapolis VA HCS

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