Background: The inability to speak during mechanical ventilation is recognized as a terrifying and isolating experience that is related to feelings of panic, insecurity, anger, worry, fear, sleep disturbances, and stress among critically ill patients. Alternative methods of communicating with temporarily nonspeaking patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) have received little study. Although electronic voice output communication aids (VOCAs) are available for disabled children and adults, the effectiveness of VOCA systems with adult medical ICU patients who may have multisystem illness, prolonged intubation, and longer ICU stays has not been explored.
Objectives: The purpose of this pilot study was to describe (1) the characteristics of intubated MICU patients who use VOCAs, (2) the usage patterns (message categories, frequency, assistance required), (3) communication quality (ease, user satisfaction), and (4) barriers to communication with VOCAs.
Methods: This pilot study used participant observation, semi-structured interviews, questionnaires, and clinical record review in a complementary design to obtain data on communication events and VOCA use with 11 critically ill adults.
Results: Study participants, 45.5 +/- 16.0 years of age with 13 +/- 1.9 years of education and moderately severe illness (APACHE III=27.5 +/- 16.1), used the VOCA for 5.7 +/- 4.6 days. Ease of Communication Scale measurements showed significantly less difficulty with communication after device use (t>2.62; P=.047). Almost half (n=5) of the participants demonstrated some independent use of the device. VOCAS were used in one quarter of observed communication events. Patients used VOCAs most often to communicate with family visitors and initiated communication interactions more often when VOCAs were used than when communicating by other nonvocal methods. Poor device positioning, deterioration in patient condition, staff time constraints, staff unfamiliarity with device, and complex message screens were primary barriers to VOCA use.
Conclusions: This study showed that use of VOCAs is possible with selected critically ill adults and may contribute to greater ease of communication during respiratory tract intubation particularly with family members. Further clinical research using control or comparison groups is needed.