Innovations in Healthcare

Alternative Healthcare Models Aim to Boost Sagging Critical-Care Workforce


Amid the struggle to boost the country’s sagging critical-care workforce, experts have most commonly proposed creating a tiered or regionalized model of care, investing more in tele-ICU services, and augmenting the role of midlevel providers.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, with 20 hospitals and roughly 500 ICU beds throughout its network, is adopting a regionalized healthcare delivery system. Some of the center’s most high-risk services, such as its big transplant programs, are centralized within the main university campus hospitals, as are about half of the ICU beds.

“In those hospitals, we’ve decided that we need 24/7 in-house, intensive-care attendings,” says Derek Angus, MD, the center’s chair of critical-care medicine. The doctors work with fellows and a rapidly growing expansion of midlevel providers.

In some of the smaller hospitals, however, some ICU patients are seen and managed by hospitalists. The medical center’s eventual goal is to be more systematic about the kinds of patients managed by intensivists as well as those managed by hospitalists. It’s a task made easier by the specialists’ close working relationship within the same department.

Dr. Angus believes telemedicine could help by providing a sort of mission control that can help track critically ill patients and those at risk of being admitted to ICUs across all 20 hospitals. He concedes, however, that telemedicine for ICU assistance has had mixed results in the medical literature, suggesting that a major key is working out the proper roles and responsibilities of those using the technology.

To improve the consistency of its own frontline providers, the Emory University Center for Critical Care in Atlanta developed a competency-based, critical-care training program for nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs).

“It’s very clear that if you have a group of NP and PA providers who can do 90 percent of what the physician does, it really begins to unload the physician to focus on what I call the big-picture pieces of critical care,” says center director Timothy Buchman, PhD, MD.

That attending physician can be trained as a care executive to ensure well-coordinated care and to focus on any process that isn’t working well. “At a big academic health sciences center, that should probably be a critical-care physician,” Dr. Buchman notes. “But for the smaller community and regional hospitals that have a relatively less sick population, the person who will be well-positioned to oversee this nonphysician provider staff could well be a hospitalist who’s received additional guidance and training in critical care.”

For mild or moderate complexity of care, he says, the added training need not necessarily include a traditional two-year fellowship. Under a value-based system, sicker patients could be rapidly transferred to a higher level of care, and telemedicine could provide a “backstop” for providers in smaller hospitals who lack the training and experience of someone with a full critical-care fellowship.

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