Psychological distress and morbidity of family members experiencing virtual visiting in intensive care during COVID-19: an observational cohort study

Louise Rose*, Amelia Cook, Juliana Onwumere, Ella Terblanche, Natalie Pattison, Victoria Metaxa, Joel Meyer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: During the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, intensive care units (ICUs) around the world introduced virtual visiting to mediate the psychological impact of in-person visiting restrictions. Our objective was to evaluate levels of distress, depression, anxiety, and stress among family members experiencing virtual visits. Methods: Multi-centre prospective observational study recruiting adult family members of critically ill patients in the United Kingdom (UK) using a bespoke virtual visiting solution (aTouchAway). We recruited participants and administered validated questionnaires digitally via their aTouchAway account. Prior to first virtual visit, participants completed the Distress Thermometer (score range 0–10) and the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS)-21. Following first and subsequent virtual visits, participants repeated the Distress Thermometer and completed the Discrete Emotions Questionnaire. Results: We recruited 2166 adult family members of ICU patients in 37 UK hospitals. Most were grown up children (33%) or spouses/partners (23%). Most (91%) were ≤ 65 years. Mean (SD) pre-virtual-visit Distress Thermometer score was 7 (2.6) with 1349/2153 (62%) reporting severe distress. Pre-visit Distress Thermometer scores were associated with relationship type (spouse/partner OR 1.65, 95% CI 1.27–2.12) but not family member age, or length of ICU stay. Mean (SD) post-visit Distress Thermometer score provided by 762 (35%) participants was 1.6 (3.2) points lower than pre-visit (P < 0.001). Of participants experiencing multiple visits, 22% continued to report severe distress. Median (IQR) pre-visit DASS-21 score was 18 (2–42) (1754 participants). Severe-to-extremely severe depression, anxiety, or stress were reported by 249 (14%), 321 (18%), and 165 (9%) participants, respectively. Participants reported a range of emotions with reassurance being the most common, anger being the least. Conclusion: Family members exposed to COVID-19 pandemic ICU visiting restrictions experienced severe distress. One fifth of family members reported severe-to-extremely sever anxiety or depression. Distress score magnitude and prevalence of severe distress decreased after undertaking one or more virtual visits.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1156-1164
Number of pages9
JournalIntensive Care Medicine
Issue number9
Early online date1 Aug 2022
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2022


  • COVID-19
  • Family
  • Intensive care
  • Psychological distress
  • Virtual visiting


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