Choosing which hospitalized COVID-19 patients receive potentially lifesaving care, making urgent calls for ventilators and other equipment, and triaging care based on patient age and comorbidities were among the challenges revealed in new feedback from health care leaders and frontline workers.
Even though many hospitals have contingency plans for how to allocate resources and triage patient care during crisis capacity, for many providers during the real-world COVID-19 trial of these protocols, they fell short.
Many hospital crisis capacity plans, for example, were too general to address all the specific challenges arising during the pandemic, investigators report in a study published online Nov. 6 in JAMA Network Open.
“Our research shows that the types of challenges and approach to resource limitation in real-world clinical settings during the pandemic differed in practice from how we had prepared in theory,” lead author Catherine Butler, MD, told Medscape Medical News. Insufficient dialysis treatment time, staff shortages, and routine supply scarcity are examples “for which there was not an established plan or approach for appropriate allocation.”
“This left frontline clinicians to determine what constituted an acceptable standard of care and to make difficult allocation decisions at the bedside,” added Butler, acting instructor in the Division of Nephrology at the University of Washington in Seattle and a research fellow at the VA Health Services Research and Development Seattle-Denver Center of Innovation.
The investigators conducted semistructured interviews in April and May with 61 clinicians and health leaders. Mean age was 46 years, 63% were women, and participants practiced in 15 states. Most participants hailed from locations hard-hit by the pandemic at the time, including Seattle, New York City, and New Orleans.
The qualitative study included comments from respondents on three major themes that emerged: planning for crisis capacity, adapting to resource limitation, and the multiple unprecedented barriers to care delivery.
Overall, planning and support from institutional leaders varied. One provider said, “Talking to administration, and they just seemed really disengaged with the problem. We asked multiple times if there was a triage command center or a plan for what would occur if we got to the point where we had to triage resources. They said there was, but they wouldn’t provide it to us.”
Another had a more positive experience. “The biggest deal in the ethics world in the last 2 months has been preparing in case we need to triage. So, we have a very detailed, elaborate, well thought-out triage policy … that was done at the highest levels of the system.”
Clinicians said they participate on triage teams – despite the moral weight and likely emotional burden – out of a sense of duty.
Interestingly, some providers on these teams also reported a reluctance to reveal their participation to colleagues. “I didn’t feel like I should tell anybody … even some of my close friends who are physicians and nurses here … that I’ve been asked to be on this [triage team],” one respondent said. “I didn’t feel like I should make it known.”