April 21/09 – Upopolis arrives at BC Children’s Hospital

BC Childrens’ Hospital patients join online BY GILLIAN SHAW, VANCOUVER SUN APRIL 21, 2009

VANCOUVER — For all the dials and tubes that Kate Mitchell must drag around during her stay at the BC Childrens’ Hospital, a vital piece of electronic equipment has been missing.

That is her Internet-connected laptop computer, an item usually not welcome in children’s wards, where unsupervised access could put kids at risk from cyber-predators and other downsides of the World Wide Web.

They could end up surfing inappropriate websites, dig up difficult, highly technical material about their medical conditions, and even find dangerous information. For example, a patient suffering from anorexia might seek out diet websites.

But those cyber-conditions were cured Monday when the 16-year-old Mitchell signed on to the newly launched Upopolis, a secure and youth-friendly social network that lets patients virtually escape the confines of their beds and their hospital rooms for friendships and fun online.

Delivered through a partnership of the BC Children’s Hospital, the Kids’ Health Links Foundation and Telus, Upopolis is the first secure social network in western Canada for kids in hospital care.

“It’s really exciting,” said Mitchell, who started her own blog on the site during the news conference announcing it, documenting her experience as cameras flashed and reporters pushed microphones forward to catch her words. “You get a laptop in your room, which is really exciting, and you can play DVDs on it too.”

Upopolis, which gives young people their own user interfaces when they sign on, offers Mitchell a range of options, from blogging to online chat, schoolwork and finding both general websites and health information edited to be easily understandable.

“I’ve never had a blog, so that’s really exciting and I can meet people who have the same thing as me,” said Mitchell, who has been in and out of hospital since 2005 with Crohn’s disease.

The site had its beginnings with the experience of two 14-year-old friends who were in hospital in Hamilton, Ont. One, ChristinaPapaevangelou, was in Vancouver on Monday with her father Basile Papaevangelou, founder of Kids’ Health Links and the man behind Upopolis.

The other, Christina’s friend Katy McDonald, never made it out of hospital; she died of a rare form of cancer. She was remembered Monday with Papaevangelou’s announcement of a $40,000 fellowship in child life studies, the first of its kind in Canada. The initial recipient is Vancouver Children’s Hospital.

“The inspiration was my daughter and her friend Katy,” Papaevangelou said in an interview. “My daughter was near death and she survived. It was from toxic shock, a massive blood infection. She was in intensive care.”

He said Katy’s mother told him she had really missed her computer while in hospital.

He learned that most children’s hospitals don’t allow patients unsupervised access to the Internet; few even provide laptops they can use while supervised.

Papaevangelou said while people think the ban has to do with interference with delicate hospital electronics, it has more to do with the risk of cyber-predators “connecting with fragile children.”

With Upopolis, “We essentially put a protective bubble around the child and the only way a child can get out ... is through Upopolis and that channel has to be approved by the hospital and by the parent,” he said.

Upopolis has chat functions and e-mail, but doesn’t allow access to sites such as Facebook. It does let patients connect with others in the network, in the same hospital and in others.

Telus, which donated the system, built it and hosts it in a Telus data centre, donated 20 laptops to BC Children’s and five years of maintenance for them, plus the $40,000 for the child life fellowship.

Telus president Darren Entwistle said linking young people in hospital to their friends, families and communities is a vital part of the healing process. He said Telus will invest $100 million in health care technology over the next three years.

“Despite massive investment, Canada’s health care system is in the midst of a challenge of historic proportions that is impacting every single Canadian,” he said. “This challenge is impacting the way we care for our children, and the way we care for our parents. “I believe that the only way we will answer the challenge of health care affordability and effectiveness is through innovation and investment in information, communications and technology.”