Psychological distress and morbidity of family members experiencing virtual visiting in intensive care during COVID-19: an observational cohort study

Louise Rose, Victoria Metaxa, Amelia Cook, Joel Meyer, Natalie Pattison, Juliana Onwumere

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Purpose: During the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, intensive care units (ICUs) around the world introduced virtual visiting to mediate the psychological impact of in-person visiting restrictions. Our objective was to evaluate levels of distress, depression, anxiety, and stress among family members experiencing virtual visits.

Methods: Multi-centre prospective observational study recruiting adult family members of critically ill patients in the United Kingdom (UK) using a bespoke virtual visiting solution (aTouchAway). We recruited participants and administered validated questionnaires digitally via their aTouchAway account. Prior to first virtual visit, participants completed the Distress Thermometer (score range 0-10) and the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS)-21. Following first and subsequent virtual visits, participants repeated the Distress Thermometer and completed the Discrete Emotions Questionnaire.

Results: We recruited 2166 adult family members of ICU patients in 37 UK hospitals. Most were grown up children (33%) or spouses/partners (23%). Most (91%) were ≤ 65 years. Mean (SD) pre-virtual-visit Distress Thermometer score was 7 (2.6) with 1349/2153 (62%) reporting severe distress. Pre-visit Distress Thermometer scores were associated with relationship type (spouse/partner OR 1.65, 95% CI 1.27-2.12) but not family member age, or length of ICU stay. Mean (SD) post-visit Distress Thermometer score provided by 762 (35%) participants was 1.6 (3.2) points lower than pre-visit (P < 0.001). Of participants experiencing multiple visits, 22% continued to report severe distress. Median (IQR) pre-visit DASS-21 score was 18 (2-42) (1754 participants). Severe-to-extremely severe depression, anxiety, or stress were reported by 249 (14%), 321 (18%), and 165 (9%) participants, respectively. Participants reported a range of emotions with reassurance being the most common, anger being the least.

Conclusion: Family members exposed to COVID-19 pandemic ICU visiting restrictions experienced severe distress. One fifth of family members reported severe-to-extremely sever anxiety or depression. Distress score magnitude and prevalence of severe distress decreased after undertaking one or more virtual visits.

Keywords: COVID-19; Family; Intensive care; Psychological distress; Virtual visiting.
Original languageEnglish
JournalIntensive Care Medicine
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2022


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