Online network for sick children launched

5 Mar 2007

A wireless network that allows children suffering from cancer to communicate and access entertainment online has been rolled out in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin.

Solas, a network developed by Trinity College Dublin’s (TCD) Centre for Health Informatics, was launched this morning in the hospital. The network is available to patients in the National Children’s Cancer Unit.

The Solas project is a new departure in that it will allow secure internet connection for the first time in the children’s isolation wards outside of the hospital school environment, meaning teacher supervision is not required.

Sick children can now communicate with one another within the hospital and with their families at home via email, video conferencing and live chat over a secure internet environment. They also now have an online collaborative space where they can share experience with each other by writing stories; they can also create art and compose music with specially designed software.

The project took three years to complete and was funded by the Health Executive Authority at a cost of €300k. Sony provided laptops for the project.

“We spoke to the children and met with parents and families to see what they would like and what would suit them,” explained Paula Hicks, project manager with the Centre for Health Informatics. “A huge issue has been around security. That’s been key to anything that we develop. In terms of bringing a number of different technologies to them such as video link, SMS texting, email and live chat facility, it’s been done in a secure environment.”

She breaks the project into two components: communication and entertainment. “There’s the communication element – where they can communicate with family and friends at home from the ward – and then there’s the entertainment element – where they can actually go and compose music, create their own art, listen to audio books and access websites in a restricted environment. There are so many web resources out there that for us to go and create any of that ourselves wouldn’t have made sense so we brought it to them in a secure environment.”

Some of the children can be in isolation for four to six weeks with only two allocated visitors during that time, said Hicks, so the communication element is vital, not just for keeping in contact with their friends at school but often with their brothers and sisters. Stringent infection control policies presented another challenge for Hicks and her team.

“Infection control is huge in this particular ward, which it is in a lot of the wards, so even developing and putting in technology has to be in line with the policies of the hospital: laptops have to be easily cleaned down, for example. That’s extremely important.”

The Solas system is Oracle web-based; it’s accessed from a website and the server is in TCD. “It’s important after we develop something we leave a sustainable system out there,” said Hicks.

Hicks said the project will be evaluated in time to see how rollouts could be implemented for the whole hospital and for other hospitals as well. It is the first time wireless access will be available from a ward in an Irish hospital and the initiative is being looked at by other European health authorities. The original idea came from the US, where higher levels of funding have been made available through the Starbrite Children’s Foundation for tech rollouts.

Speakers at the launch this morning included TCD Provost Dr John Hegarty; chief executive of Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin Michael Lyons; Professor Owen Smith, paediatric haematologist at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin. The launch was hosted by RTE broadcaster Ryan Tubridy.

By Niall Byrne