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Houston startup pivots to make communication software for hospitals limiting visitors

Truss has modified its software to advance communications while hospitals are cracking down on visitors amid the coronavirus outbreak. Getty Images

With hospitals cracking down on people allowed into patient rooms, a Houston startup has adjusted its software to provide a solution to communications issues between patients, doctors, and family members.

Houston-based Truss usually focuses on digital community engagement, but Patrick Schneidau, CEO of the company, says he felt called to do something to help families separated due to strict emergency visitation rules at hospitals.

"You read all the stories of loved ones not being able to be together during this time," Schneidau says. "That was the area we wanted to focus on."

Schneidau describes the software as a secure portal for small groups to interact via smart devices. Physicians can interface with family members via video chat or recorded messages, as well as answer any questions.

"We've done some preliminary research — doctors themselves want to communicate with the family," Schneidau says, "but they can't be on six different phone calls throughout the day for one patient."

So as not to burden hospital staff unnecessarily, the platform would also provide answers to common questions and resources. Perhaps most importantly, the software can allow patients to interact with their family members from afar.

According to Schneidau, Truss is seeking hospitals that might be interested in the technology and recognizes that hospitals are currently jumping on new tech opportunities in this time of crisis, like Houston Methodist, which is equipping its hospital rooms with tablets.

"We've talked to a number of hospitals, and every one is facing this issue," Schneidau says. "We're figuring out who would be the right people to participate in the tool itself."

Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, Schneidau, who's a member if InnovationMap's board of directors, says he thinks the platform could be helpful communications in nursing homes.

"The outside forces being what they are and preventing visitors in the room doesn't preclude the need to communicate with family members," says Schneidau. "So you have to come up with an innovative solution very quickly to be able to address that particular issue. This is a possible answer to that."

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For over a year now, scientists have been testing wastewater for COVID-19. Now, the public can access that information. Photo via Getty Images

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

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