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New virtual Information Desk connects patients and volunteers during COVID-19

The Ottawa Hospital Virtual Informaition Desk Ulyana Osorio and Suzanne Lariviere

Janet Laba puts on her blue volunteer vest and gets ready to help the many patients and families who come to the hospital’s information desks. But instead of commuting to The Ottawa Hospital, Janet walks into her home office and sits down at her computer.

Janet is one of the 50 volunteers who are now providing compassionate care and a helping hand at The Ottawa Hospital’s new Virtual Information Desk – the first of its kind in hospitals across Canada. 

The Virtual Information Desk is quite simple.  Once logged in, volunteers appear on a large screen mounted at the Information Desk inside one of the hospital’s campuses.  Through secure video chat on Microsoft Teams, they can see, hear and speak to people at the desk in real-time.

“It is, for sure, different than we used to do, but the joy of helping others is enormous,” said Janet, who has been volunteering for The Ottawa Hospital since 1985.

Janet Laba appears on screen at The Ottawa Hospital's Virtual Information Desk
Janet Laba is one of 50 volunteers at The Ottawa Hospital’s Virtual Information Desk.  Volunteers and visitors can see, hear and speak to each other in real time using a secure video connection

In March, more than 1,400 volunteers were asked to stay home as part of The Ottawa Hospital’s response to COVID-19. Janet was overjoyed that she could continue to help the community in this way.

Still, helping people virtually takes some getting used to.

“It is a little strange to work from home,” she said. “I miss sometimes going with a patient and talking with them, but we still can connect with them, even though it is over a monitor. We are still learning the process, but there are surprising moments every day.”

Ulyana Osorio, Coordinator, Volunteer Resources, Civic Campus, came up with the idea for the Virtual Information Desk after video chatting with one of the hospital’s volunteers.

Ulyana shared her vision with Suzanne Lariviere Coordinator, Volunteer Resources at the General Campus, who immediately believed in the project, and together they started developing it.  Ulyana and Suzanne met with Stephen Roos and his Audiovisual team to talk about how this idea could come to be at the hospital.

“Stephen Roos,  Alain Audette and the Audiovisual Team brought our vision to life in such an elegant and sophisticated way,” said Suzanne.

“It’s great timing,” Ulyana said. “More patients and visitors are coming to the hospital and need directions to their appointment. We have the technology, so why not use it and let our volunteers do what they do best virtually?  After all, the volunteers are the heart of the hospital.”

The virtual information desks have other benefits, too. Having volunteers help from home means that there is no need for them to use PPE (personal protective equipment), and there is no risk of transmitting the virus.

“It took only four weeks to go from idea to reality,” said Suzanne. “It wouldn’t have happened without amazing support and encouragement that we got from our leadership team.” That team included Sherri Daily, Manager of Volunteer Resources, Laura MacDonald  Director of Labour Relations and Volunteer Resources and Renée Légaré, Executive Vice-President and Chief Human Resources Officer.

“After all, the volunteers are the heart of the hospital.”

The project has been so successful that other hospitals in Ontario have contacted The Ottawa Hospital for advice on how to set up a Virtual Information Desk for themselves.

Volunteers sign up to help the public in two-hour shifts between 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. with the possibility of expanding the hours as the program rolls out. The Virtual Information Desk will continue into the foreseeable future.

If you have not seen the Virtual Information Desk in action, please stop by and say hello to the volunteers on screen at the Civic and General Campuses.


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  • Laura Dunn says:

    Way to go for setting this up, Stephen and Alain! And thank you to all the volunteers!
    This is great!

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