At the start of each shift on his clinical service with rotating internal medicine residents, Benji Mathews, MD, SFHM, now adds a few components to his usual preparation. First, visiting the Minnesota Department of Health and various organizational websites to review the latest COVID-19 updates and guidelines. Next comes checking to see where he needs to pick up the surgical mask and eye protection that he will need to wear through the day. Last, he evaluates which of his patients are in telemedicine-equipped rooms; this last change has fast become a crucial part of working with his resident learners during a pandemic.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, residents and residency programs find themselves in a unique situation. Balancing the educational needs of a training program with the safety of trainees is a challenging task, specifically when taking care of patients who are COVID-19 positive or patients under investigation (PUI). One increasingly available tool that can help protect trainees while continuing to prioritize patient care and medical education is the use of telemedicine for virtual rounding. For our internal medicine residents through the University of Minnesota Internal Medicine Residency program rotating at Regions Hospital in Saint Paul, Minn., we have used video visits to continue our mandate as both health care and education professionals.
Virtual care decision tree
Virtual care can mitigate exposure risk, minimize use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and improve communications with patients and their families. To guide our teaching teams on the optimal situations for telemedicine, we needed to select those patients who would be most appropriate for a virtual visit.
For example, patients with advanced dementia, or intubated in the intensive care unit, would have less utility from a real-time video encounter. Further, we implemented a simple decision tree (Figure 1). First, the team needs to decide whether the patient needs an immediate in-person assessment; for instance, for critically ill patients or those who need end-of-life care discussions, telemedicine would not be an appropriate modality. Next, the decision is made on whether a patient requires an in-person exam at that time. The idea of forgoing the in-person physical exam may run counterintuitive to the core training medical providers undergo, but in certain circumstances telemedicine can still provide the appropriate level of care a patient requires.
Virtual rounding with residents: Pros and cons
Through the course of this pandemic, there have many questions raised regarding how to handle inpatient teaching services: Should resident teams be assigned COVID-19 positives or PUIs? How do you optimize assessing and learning from patients’ conditions that require human touch? Should all members of the teaching team be donning PPE and entering the patient room?
Internal medicine residents in our hospital have been assigned COVID-19 positive and PUI patients. With proper PPE, and donning and doffing practices, residents may continue to learn from this important training opportunity while also optimizing care for patients supplemented by telemedicine. This pandemic has flattened the hierarchy; often residents are teaching their attendings much of the latest literature and best practices around COVID-19. Residents also benefit by joining the organization’s daily virtual interprofessional COVID-19 huddle where they partner with infectious disease, critical care, pharmacy, and other experts to collaborate in the care of these patients.
There have been counterarguments made for residents joining the front lines with COVID-19 patients. Some have conditions that limit them from seeing this subgroup of patients, such as their immune status or other issues. For these residents, we do not assign COVID-19–positive patients. However, they may continue to support in virtually updating COVID-19 patients and their families. A second argument has been the use of PPE. We have implemented telemedicine to limit the total number of exposures and have a protocol for the fewest number of providers possible to see any at-risk or confirmed COVID-19 patient. For example, a resident who sees a COVID-19 patient in person may also be simultaneously virtually supervised by the attending.