Unique social media platform aids in breaking down hospital walls for young patients

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Before the birth of social media – Facebook and Twitter- two young girls longed to stay connected while in hospital and away from their families, friends and each other. In February 2002, teenager, Christina Papaevangelou was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at McMaster Children’s Hospital with a life-threatening illness. Shortly after, Christina’s best friend, Katy McDonald, was diagnosed with cancer and had to be hospitalized for a long period of time at The Hospital for Sick Children. While hospital visits were made, the two girls desired to stay connected in the same capacity they once had. Sadly, Katy lost her battle with cancer; however their friendship and common experiences inspired Christina to explore ways of helping children in care stay connected to their loved ones.

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Fuelled by a passion to connect hospital inpatients to their loved ones, Christina teamed up with her father, Basile Papaevangelou and founded Kids’ Health Links Foundation. The organization sought to help alleviate stress, isolation and loneliness for children receiving inpatient medical care in order to help them heal faster and overcome traumatic medical experiences. In December 2007, Upopolis.com was born. First launched at McMaster Children’s Hospital, Upopolis is the only private, secure and trusted online social networking tool specifically designed to connect children in care to other patients, their families, friends and school.

“When we launched Upopolis in 2007 it was only a dream. Today it has connected children in nine hospitals across Canada to their friends and loved ones,” said Basile Papaevangelou, chairman and founder of Kids Health Links Foundation. “With each launch we are one step closer to bringing Upopolis to every Canadian children’s hospital.”

Kids Health Links Foundation works in collaboration with TELUS Health who develops, maintains and operates Upopolis and provides familiar features of social networking to young inpatients, including personal profiles, micro-blogging, instant chat, group chats, multiple photo uploading and event calendars. In addition, the platform gives patients the opportunity to stay up-to-date with their schoolwork, navigate through child-friendly health and wellness information and connect children with similar experiences and interests.

“Social networks and technology are a ubiquitous part of the lives of many Canadian children today and young patients also want the opportunity to stay connected while receiving care,” said Paul Lepage, President, TELUS Health. “Upopolis empowers children in care and gives them the opportunity to network and share experiences, thoughts and feelings with other kids under similar circumstances, fostering a community of support. On behalf of TELUS, we are thrilled to be a part of something that truly makes a difference in the lives of young inpatients in hospitals.”

Upopolis was recently redesigned to model social media platforms young patients are familiar with. New features include private and public discussion groups called My Spaces, enabling children to share information and photos and discuss topics on common interests. The restructured site also features a personalized newsfeed to keep users informed on everything that is important to them. All previous features have been updated to make it easier for patients to surf through the network site with ease. Child Life Specialists at the hospitals champion Upopolis and work with patients and their families and other caregivers to help manage stress, pain and anxiety associated with hospitalization.

Selena, a 12-year-old patient with cystic fibrosis at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto had her first lung transplant two years ago and is currently waiting to have her second. As a result she can’t attend school and often feels out of touch with reality inside the walls of her hospital room.  During her first transplant her Child Life Specialists brought her outside world back into her life when they introduced her to Upopolis.

“My Child Life Specialist said “Hey, Selena do you want to try Upop?” I said “What’s that, that’s a crazy word” She told me it was like Facebook for kids in the hospital and it was run by Child Life Specialists too,” Selena said. “She said The Child Life Specialists would show me how to use it and hang out with me and stuff. I like that because I was pretty bored. She also said there were other kids with CF on there, which is cool because I don’t get to talk to them at the hospital because of isolation.”

Today Upopolis connects children in care in nine Children’s Hospitals across Canada. In March 2013, Upopolis launched at the first hospital in Southwestern Ontario: Children’s Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre. In addition to Children’s Hospital, the social networking site connects children at other Canadian hospitals including McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton; CHEO in Ottawa; The Hospital for Sick Children and Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto; Ste. Justine in Montreal and Lutherwood in Waterloo. In June 2013, the program will launch at Montreal Children’s Hospital.

The Upopolis team and TELUS Health have worked together to adapt the program in order to meet the specific needs of each hospital, whether adding French language capabilities or information specific to mental health.