Back to Work: Walkie-Talkies Go From Toys to Helping Coronavirus Patients Speak With Families


With all the advanced and sophisticated communication devices available today, who would have thought a dated handheld transceiver, a walkie-talkie,  would be the best piece of equipment for COVID-19 patients and their families as they try to connect during the pandemic.

Two New York-Presbyterian physicians have launched a new program called VoiceLove Project that aims to connect patients and their families with the help of walkie-talkies, Fast Company first reported. Vascular and interventional radiologist Marc Schiffman, MD, and obstetrician/gynecologist Tamatha Fenster, both affiliated with New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medicine, came up with idea to use walkie-talkies after observing the downsides of more modern communication technologies.

Invented by Don Hings in 1937, the walkie talkie was initially was used by pilots as a portable radio signaling system during World War II. But between the 1970s and 1980s, the walkie-talkie’s simple and straightforward mechanism made it a popular communication device for adults and children. Now, aside from being used by security personnel and certain businesses, walkie-talkies are mainly a child’s plaything. But  through VoiceLove, they could become an essential communication device that allows COVID-19 patients to connect with their loved ones in a hassle-free way.

Why use walkie-talkies when we have advanced technology with smart phones and tablets that can do so much more? Walkie-talkies are simple to use. Nurses or other healthcare providers are needed to help most patients in using a smart phone or tablet, since patients in intensive care units (ICUs) might be unable to. Patients’ families may also feel uncomfortable during video chats, seeing their loved ones so ill while so far away. Walkie-talkies are voice-only devices that directly connect the speakers. The devices are also easy to operate since they only have a few buttons. Hence, patients might readily use them on their own without the need of assistance from the nurses or others.

Schiffman and Fenster used walkie-talkies from Relay, a product originally designed for children, for this program. They modified the devices with the help of an industrial engineer, so each unit would come with a casing that protects it from contamination. They also have a feature that enables it to easily attach to the hospital bed for easy access. The walkie-talkies connect to an app that the patients’ families can download on their smartphones, so they could remotely speak with their loved ones. The physicians behind the program asked Relay to waive monthly subscription costs for the patients who would be using the modified walkie-talkies.

The program has since deployed devices across 10 care units at New York-Presbyterian and around a dozen of COVID-19 patients are using them to communicate with their loved ones as they remain isolated.

“It’s funny because initially we were talking about all these sophisticated walkie-talkie things and then we come upon this children’s device,” Fenster said in the FastCompany article, adding that the walkie-talkie’s simplicity made it the best communication device for patients who are sick with the coronavirus but who want to stay in touch with their families.

COVID-19 testing staff are seen at a pop-up site at Keilor Community Hub on June 24, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. COVID-19 testing staff are seen at a pop-up site at Keilor Community Hub on June 24, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. A man in his 80s died overnight in Victoria from coronavirus, bringing the total number of deaths in the state to 20. The death is the first COVID-19 fatality for Victoria in many weeks and also comes as 20 new coronavirus cases were confirmed today. Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

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