Online Social Network Keeps Sick Kids Connected
OTTAWA—It was seven years ago when good friends Christina Papaevangelou and Katy McDonald, both 16, were hospitalized one after the other due to life-threatening illness.
Christina fully recovered from Toxic Shock Syndrome after a lengthy hospital stay. But, sadly, Katy lost her battle with cancerous brain tumours.
While Christina grieved for her friend, she was also inspired by Katy’s determination while in hospital to stay in touch with the most important people and things in her life—her family, friends, and school—all in another city.
When Katy was hospitalized at Toronto’s Sick Children’s Hospital, she found that she really missed her computer. Everything changed after her parents provided her with a laptop and she was able to use the Internet service to maintain contact with her family, friends, and school in Burlington via e-mail and instant messaging.
During Christina’s own stay at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, she felt remote and disconnected from her family and friends in Oakville. Being so far away, she also had trouble keeping up with her schoolwork.
But Katy’s experience inspired Christina to help other hospitalized kids overcome stress, isolation, and loneliness by staying connected. She and her father, Basile Papaevangelou, founded a charitable organization called Kids’ Health Links Foundation (KHLF) that uses innovative technology to help kids do just that.
In partnership with TELUS and McMaster Children’s Hospital, KHLF developed Upopolis, a private online social network in the form of a safe and secure communication and education portal for children in medical care.
Upopolis, first launched at McMaster Children’s Hospital in December 2007, has been expanding to other hospitals across Canada, including B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver and IWK Health Centre in Halifax. The first French and English bilingual version came to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) in Ottawa on May 6.
“The children at CHEO who are accessing it can establish contact with their family and friends, but they can also include in their contacts kids whom they’ve met here at the hospital. Also the beauty of this is that as more of these programs are out in Canadian institutions the kids will be able to communicate with other children in other cities that have similar medical conditions,” said Maureen Jones, a child life specialist at CHEO.
If they keep their accounts active, children who are registered with the online community can maintain contact even after they are discharged, Ms. Jones said.
Upopolis lets kids keep contact via email, instant chat, personal blogs, and online discussion groups. Other features include child-friendly news and games and a homework site to help kids stay current with their schoolwork by receiving and submitting homework assignments.
“It’s also a repository of child-friendly medical information that originated from McMaster Children’s Hospital,” Ms. Jones said.
The system includes content about the common conditions and procedures that pertain to kids, written especially for kids by the child life specialists at McMaster.
“Kids and parents can access this and better understand what’s happening to them, therefore demystifying some of the procedures and decreasing that fear factor,” said Ms. Jones, adding that there are plans to tailor the system specifically for CHEO.
“We’ll be able to, down the road, download pictures of some of the areas that the kids go into, like the OR, like some of the common rooms. We can have a pictorial explanation…so the kids can have a visual of some of the things that are going on here.”
Kids access the Upopolis community on laptops via a private wireless network. Toshiba donated more than 20 laptops, each with adapted keyboard covers so that they can be easily cleaned and disinfected before and after every use.
Ms. Jones said the system is safe and secure because only kids who are registered with the hospital can use it and only the contacts that they have invited can communicate with them through Upopolis.
TELUS provided the technology to build the system and will continue to provide site expansion, ongoing access, web hosting, and application support and maintenance.
“Technology has an important role to play in helping Canadian healthcare providers improve the patient experience,” said Joe Natale, president of TELUS Business Solutions, in a news release.
“Launching Upopolis for the first time in English and French demonstrates how this program is expanding to meet the needs of kids in hospital across Canada,” said Basile Papaevangelou, chairman and founder of KHLF.
With the help of its partners and with hospitals, KHLF aims to expand Upopolis to reach hospitalized kids across North America and internationally, fulfilling Christina’s wish after her recovery that from her experience she was going to find a way to make a difference.