Switching gears at high speed


Making the leap

Even though they didn’t choose hospital medicine, or ICU medicine, as their specialty, physicians may greatly underestimate how useful they can be with a little just-in-time training and the help of residents, fellows, advanced practice providers, and experienced nurses and respiratory therapists.

That training is now available for free through Michigan Medicine’s new online COVID-19 CME portal. The session in “Inpatient Management of COVID-19 patients” provides an important overview for those who have never cared for a case, especially if they haven’t been on inpatient duty in a while. The ICU Bootcamp is for those who will be caring for sicker COVID-19 patients but haven’t practiced in an ICU for a while.

One of the most important roles of a COVID-19 inpatient physician, Dr. Vaughn notes, doesn’t involve new skills. Rather, it draws on the doctoring skills that general medicine and hospital medicine physicians have already honed: the ability to assess and treat the entire patient, to talk with families who can’t be with their loved ones, to humanize the experience for patients and their loved ones as much as possible, and to bring messages of love from the family back to the bedside.

By pairing a general medicine physician newly placed on inpatient duty with a resident, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant who can handle inpatient charting duties, the team can make the most of each kind of provider’s time. Administrators, too, can reduce the burden on the entire team by simplifying processes for what must be charted and recorded in the EMR.

“Hospitals facing a COVID-19 crunch need to make it easier for teams to focus on the medicine and the human connection” and to shorten the learning curve for those shifting into unfamiliar duties, she advises.

Other lessons learned

Placing COVID-19 patients on the same unit, and keeping non–COVID-19 patients in another area of the hospital, isn’t just a good idea for protecting uninfected patients, Dr. Vaughn notes. It’s also good for providers who are getting used to treating COVID-19 because they don’t have to shift between the needs of different types of patients as they go from room to room.

“The learning curve is steep, but after a couple of days taking care of these patients, you have a good feeling about how to care for them and a great sense of camaraderie with the rest of the team involved in caring for them,” she says. “Everyone jumps in to help because they know we’re in this as a team and that it’s OK for respiratory therapists to step up to help a physician who doesn’t know as much about ventilator care or for nurses to suggest medications based on what other physicians have used.”

The flattening of professional hierarchies long ingrained in hospitals may be a side effect of the tremendous and urgent sense of mission that has developed around responding to COVID-19, Dr. Vaughn notes.

Those stepping into new roles should invite their colleagues to alert them when they see them about to slip up on protective practices that might be new to them. Similarly, they should help each other resist the urge to rush into a COVID-19 patient’s room unprotected in order to help with an urgent situation. The safety of providers – to preserve their ability to care for the many more patients who will need them – must be paramount.

“To handle this pandemic, we need to all be all-in and working toward a common goal, without competing priorities,” she says. “We need to use everyone’s skill sets to the fullest, without creating burnout. We’re going to be different when all this is done.”

Avoiding provider burnout is harder than ever because team members caring for COVID-19 must stay apart from family at home and avoid in-person visits with loved ones and friends. Those who are switching to inpatient or ICU-level care should make a point of focusing on exercise, sleep, virtual connections with loved ones, and healthy eating in between shifts.

“You’re no good to anyone else if you’re not healthy,” Dr. Vaughn says. “Your mental and physical health have to come first because they enable you to help others.”

Paying attention to the appreciation that the community is showing health care workers can also brighten the day of a stressed COVID-19 inpatient clinician, she notes.

“All the little signs of love from the community – the thank you signs, sidewalk chalk drawings, hearts in people’s windows – really do help.”

This article is published courtesy of the University of Michigan Health Lab, where it appeared originally.


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