Improving communication while wearing PPE

In this Q&A ENT surgeon at UCLH Prof Martin Birchall tells us about the technology his team are testing to improve communication while wearing personal protective equipment (PPE).

What problem are you trying to solve?

Wearing full PPE makes communication between colleagues more challenging. Ultimately this is bad for patients, as communication difficulties may lead to worse care, and mean that surgery does not run as smoothly as it could.

To get round this problem, we have been experimenting with some hi-tech devices.

Which devices have you been testing?

The first were Apple Powerbeats, which are beautifully designed, very comfortable and produce high quality sound. However, we found they relied on a consistently high internet connection.

We recently started trying out a device developed by MRTC, the company which provides tech to Formula 1 teams. These devices produced very good and clear levels of audio – and work on their own internal network, so don’t rely on an internet connection. The drawback was the number of wires.

We are about to test out the Hollow Lens VR headset from Microsoft. These go beyond making it easier to communicate. They make it possible for others to see what you are seeing through the headset, so a number of healthcare staff can take part in a patient consultation remotely, which is important in the era of Covid.

We also plan to test out a throat microphone, which has been trialled in Hong Kong.

Each device will be useful for different purposes – for example the VR headset will be most useful for teaching and training. Our aim is to take inspiration from each of these devices in order to create something bespoke, which we can use over the next decade and beyond.

What else have you been doing in response to Covid-19?

We have set up a pan-surgical research response group at UCLH. We are heavily involved in international research efforts such as CovidSurg which is capturing and analysing surgical data on Covid-19 to improve clinical practice, and PanSurg, which aims to deliver education and research to the frontline. For PanSurg PREDICT, we are collecting and analysing data from around the world on Covid-19 patients who have surgery, and we hope to develop a model which can predict how well a patient will do with surgery based on the characteristics they present with.

Watch a video of Prof Birchall talking about the hi-tech devices