Take Charge

Digital Sherpas Bridge Gap between Technology and the Patient While Offering Cancer Companionship

April 13, 2018

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By Nancy Gay

Peter Frigano’s eyes light up as the sound of an Italian street singer fills the room. He is instantly transported to Florence, Italy and the 12-day vacation he and his wife took in 2007. That was more than a decade ago and a world away from his hospital room at Moffitt Cancer Center.

Moments earlier Peter’s mind was focused on coping with a lung cancer diagnosis. It wasn’t until University of South Florida senior Brittany LaMattina knocked on the door that, for a moment, he was able to take his mind off of his illness.

Brittany is a volunteer and Digital Sherpa at Moffitt. Once a week she visits patients in the hospital and teaches them how to use the Get Well Network, which is provided through a television in the room. She shows patients and their caregivers how to find educational videos prescribed specifically for them as well as how to access television, movies, music, the patient portal and the Internet through the system. As she brought up the Internet, Brittany asked if there was anything special Peter and his family wanted to search for and his wife immediately asked her to look up an Italian street singer. Within seconds, YouTube was broadcasting a man belting out Italian songs on a cobblestone street.

Watching the performance led the family down memory lane to a very happy time in life. This opened the door to a broader discussion on travel, Italian culture and eventually cancer. Discussions like that one, which results from teaching technology, is what Brittany enjoys most about being a Digital Sherpa.

She really relates to patients and the caregivers because she spent a lot of time caring for her mother, while she fought uterine cancer at Moffitt. In fact, her mom’s battle with cancer inspired Brittany’s interest in healthcare. She began volunteering in the Diagnostic Imagining patient waiting room at Moffitt as a way to give back to the organization that gave so much to her mother. Being tech-savvy, Brittany jumped at the chance to become a Digital Sherpa in the spring of 2018.

The Digital Sherpa program is a part of the Patient Empowerment Network. The initiative stems from the idea of having an experienced guide, or Sherpa, teaching a patient technology such as:

  • Get Well Network basics
  • Internet and email
  • Social media including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
  • Virtual connections with other cancer patients through support communities
  • Apps such as Uber and other ride-share services to get to appointments

Digital Sherpa at Moffitt

Once a week, Brittany puts on the signature Digital Sherpa red volunteer apron and gathers her list of patients to visit. The goal is to visit every patient in the hospital within 24 to 48 hours of admittance. She spends the next two hours knocking on about 25 patient doors, introducing herself and offering assistance. Some patients indicate that they’ve already familiarized themselves with the Get Well Network and technology, while others are grateful to learn the ins and outs of the system, which may be the last thing on their mind while being treated for cancer.

Moffitt has seven Digital Sherpas, who receive extensive training on the Get Well Network, the Patient Portal and social media sites. They also receive instruction on how to help patients navigate to reputable websites and set up email accounts. The volunteers also undergo training from the Patient Empowerment Network Digital Sherpa program and in a simulation room.

Moffitt began the Digital Sherpa program in mid-February 2018. Within the first week, Volunteer Services recognized the need, not just for technology training, but for companionship. They discovered many patients and caregivers found the Digital Sherpa to be a welcomed relief. The volunteer is not there to ask about pain or discomfort. Instead, they offer a technological tutorial to empower the patient to find necessary information on their own. Afterward, the Digital Sherpa is there to lend an ear, providing the patient an opportunity to share stories of their life outside of cancer. This led Moffitt to add companionship coaching to its Digital Sherpa training program, so volunteers can pick up on patient needs.

Brittany is well versed in sensing patient needs. During the course of her conversation with Peter, she learned he enjoyed word puzzles and missed doing newspaper jumbles. He beamed as she showed him how to access the Daily Jumble through the Get Well Network. His wife joked that he’s not going to want to come home because he’s being treated so well.

As for Brittany, after graduation, she plans furthering her education and pursuing a career as a Physician’s Assistant.

Learn more about volunteer opportunities at Moffitt.