A start-up company is offering a smartphone application to hospitals that allows coronavirus patients to communicate their needs to nurses without physical interaction, potentially helping ward off cluster outbreaks.

Hospital patients usually use the nurse call button when they need something, but those admitted with COVID-19 are placed in isolation wards and physical contact with nurses, who must wear protective gear, is kept to a minimum to prevent the spread of the virus among staff.

A nurse uses the OPERe app at Nissan Tamagawa Hospital in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward in June 2020. (Kyodo)  

With the app, developed by OPERe, a company established by former nurse Yuka Sawada, patients can ask nurses to buy things from shops on their behalf, request changes to meal quantities and record their body temperatures. Whatever is inputted appears immediately on screens at nurse stations.

Apart from endangering staff and other patients, clusters of coronavirus infections occurring on wards force hospitals to turn away outpatients and emergency patients.

Sawada, 32, said the idea for the app arose from her own experience at a hospital when she gave birth. She found it inconvenient that the call button was the only way to get in touch with nurses.

The app, which has now been installed in several hospitals, offers different categories, reflecting data on patients' needs gathered from interviews with hospitals.

Nissan Tamagawa Hospital in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, which installed the app in May, has received positive feedback from patients.

One patient told the hospital that, for fear of infecting others, "I would have hesitated to call the nurse for something trivial."

The app has also helped nurses work more efficiently. They can now deal with several requests at once, such as using occasions when they deliver meals to patients to also respond to their other needs.

"It is necessary to reduce human interaction and protect the safety of staff at the same time, while keeping track of the patient's situation and demands given the hospital's limited time and resources," said Yumiko Takahashi, the director of nurses at the hospital.

She said the app makes it easier for patients to make requests to the nurses, but added she hopes patients continue to use the call button for emergencies.

However, there are concerns that the patients' requests could increase the workload of the nurses.

"I would like to continue to update the app to support frontline nurses working at the risk of being infected," Sawada said.