Five ICU Lessons COVID-19 Has Taught Us
By S. Ram Srinivasan, MD, MBA
S. Ram Srinivasan, MD, MBA is chief medical officer of Advanced ICU Care of St. Louis, MO.
Since March, critical care teams across the country have been stretched to the limit as they rushed to care for the surge of COVID-19 patients in their ICUs. They were forced to deal with an unknown threat that would infect an unknown number of patients and require as yet undefined treatments.
In reflection over the past few months, telemedicine has proved its continuing value for them, providing additional care support during the pandemic. Implemented as a collaborative care model, tele-ICU leverages remote intensivist-led clinical teams and sophisticated technology-enabled care services to deliver a virtual front line of 24 x 7 care in support of clinicians that are at the bedside of critically ill COVID-19 patients.
We have learned these five key lessons so far with regard to ICU care of COVID-19 patients.
COVID-19 has thrust virtual care into the spotlight overnight, with no sign of slowing down.
Telemedicine adoption, which was steadily gaining traction over the past few years, has been quickly recognized as an essential, efficient, and effective element of our healthcare ecosystem. Across inpatient and outpatient environments, patients and providers have embraced virtual care during the COVID-19 pandemic as a convenient tool that enables care access despite distance, shelter at home, and threat of infection.
For critical care, telemedicine enables highly skilled, technology-enabled care teams to reach ever-larger patient populations and do so with significant demonstrated clinical efficacy. In the course of the pandemic, tele-ICU has provided critical support to both bedside teams and their patients across the country.
COVID-19 is a pandemic consisting of regional impacts. Almost no one faces the “average” pandemic impact.
During the peak of pandemic impacts in April, we had partner hospitals that were urgently adding ICU capacity. At times, they had all of their critical care patients on ventilators and remained braced for an overwhelming deluge that never came. Our care to a set of hospitals experiencing this full range of pandemic impacts enabled us to leverage the regional differences. We were able to dedicate significant real-time care to high-volume situations and help other hospitals learn from the hotspots and prepare accordingly.
Telemedicine access to external expert resources is a powerful force multiplier, especially during crisis.
At the outset of the pandemic, we fielded urgent requests for ICU care services from a range of hospitals and other entities. A variety of accelerated response capabilities, including rapid implementations of standard tele-ICU installations and utilization of surge-compatible technology solutions, were quickly introduced. Over the course of one month alone, more than 50 of our partner hospitals initiated, expanded, or extended tele-ICU capabilities in response to the unprecedented demands resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Further, the opportunity to leverage skills that were not already on site and were not already overwhelmed, without waiting for updated licensure or to recruit volunteers from other regions, provided immediate assistance to care teams most at risk and those that were exhausted. In some cases, this ready access to critical care expertise allowed local teams to enlist other specialists in critical care under the coaching of remote specialists, relieving overworked personnel and immediately expanding their available staff.
The benefits of tele-ICU during the pandemic extend beyond outstanding clinical care.
The multiple threats of the COVID-19 crisis caused hospitals and hospital systems to significantly rethink how to deliver critical care support to their patients under trying conditions. For example, tele-ICU service extended beyond specialized care and also became a means of reducing clinician exposure to the disease and preserving personal protective equipment (PPE). In these instances, hospitals equipped with these remote clinical capabilities relied on the telemedicine team to utilize video to “visit” the ICU room virtually to assess a patient, rather than have a bedside nurse or provider don PPE and enter the patient’s room.
In addition, we have found that tele-ICU outreach by critical care clinicians is well suited to comfort patients by providing social interaction during their isolation. Remote teams can help make a scared and lonely patient more comfortable – and less frightened.
Concerns such as a lack of ventilators came and disappeared quickly, as COVID-19 proved to be a fast-moving disease with rapidly evolving care protocols.
COVID-19 was initially viewed primarily as a severe respiratory illness and was treated as such. However, further treatment experience revealed that the virus was a much more complicated threat than a respiratory illness. Since then, the critical care community has found that proning patients – that is, placing them on their stomachs for prolonged periods of time – helps increase the amount of oxygen that gets to their lungs. In fact, in many instances proning the sickest coronavirus patients, accompanied by alternative methods of supplying oxygen, became a preferred solution to the initial plans for accelerated intubation. Similarly, various medication regimens were tested and evolved.
In our role as critical care specialists, it was our responsibility to our partner hospitals and clinicians to continue to keep abreast of these rapid developments. Drawing on information across multiple sources and geographies, we then quickly provided this clinical intelligence to those in a hot spot while updating mutual care protocols.