Challenges of surge capacity
Every disaster is different, said Srikant Polepalli, MD, associate hospitalist medical director for Staten Island University Hospital in New York, part of the Northwell Health system. He brought the experience of being part of the response to Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 to the COVID pandemic.
“Specifically for hospitalists, the biggest challenge is working on surge capacity for a sudden influx of patients,” he said. “But with Northwell as our umbrella, we can triage and load-balance to move patients from hospital to hospital as needed. With the pandemic, we started with one COVID unit and then expanded to fill the entire hospital.”
Dr. Polepalli was appointed medical director for a temporary field hospital installed at South Beach Psychiatric Center, also in Staten Island. “We were able to acquire help and bring in people ranging from hospitalists to ER physicians, travel nurses, operation managers and the National Guard. Our command center did a phenomenal job of allocating and obtaining resources. It helped to have a structure that was already established and to rely on the resources of the health system,” Dr. Polepalli said. Not every hospital has a structure like Northwell’s.
“We’re not out of the pandemic yet, but we’ll continue with disaster drills and planning,” he said. “We must continue to adapt and have converted our temporary facilities to COVID testing centers, antibody infusion centers, and vaccination centers.”
For Alfred Burger, MD, SFHM, a hospitalist at Mount Sinai’s Beth Israel campus in New York, hospital medicine, now in its maturing phase, is still feeling its way through hospital and health care system transformation.
“My group is an academic, multicampus hospitalist group employed by the hospital system. When I meet other hospitalists at SHM conferences, whether they come from privately owned, corporately owned, or contracted models, they vary widely in terms of how involved the hospitalists are in crisis planning and their ability to respond to crises. At large academic medical centers like ours, one or more doctors is tasked with being involved in preparing for the next disaster,” he said.
“I think we responded the best we could, although it was difficult as we lost many patients to COVID. We were trying to save lives using the tools we knew from treating pneumonias and other forms of acute inflammatory lung injuries. We used every bit of our training in situations where no one had the right answers. But disasters teach us how to be flexible and pivot on the fly, and what to do when things don’t go our way.”
What is disaster response?
Medical response to a disaster essentially boils down to three main things: stuff, staff, and space, Dr. Persoff said. Those are the cornerstones of an emergency plan.
“There is not a hazard that exists that you can’t take an all-hazards approach to dealing with fundamental realities on the ground. No plan can be comprehensive enough to deal with all the intricacies of an emergency. But many plans can have the bones of a response that will allow you to face adverse circumstances,” he said.
“We actually became quite efficient early on in the pandemic, able to adapt in the moment. We were able to build an effective bridge between workers on the ground and our incident command structure, which seemed to reduce a lot of stress and create situational awareness. We implemented ICS as soon as we heard that China was building a COVID hospital, back in February of 2020.”
When one thinks about mass trauma, such as a 747 crash, Dr. Persoff said, the need is to treat burn victims and trauma victims in large numbers. At that point, the ED downstairs is filled with medical patients. Hospital medicine can rapidly admit those patients to clear out room in the ED. Surgeons are also dedicated to rapidly treating those patients, but what about patients who are on the floor following their surgeries? Hospitalists can offer consultations or primary management so the surgeons can stay in the OR, and the same in the ICU, while safely discharging hospitalized patients in a timely manner to make room for incoming patients.
“The lessons of COVID have been hard-taught and hard-earned. No good plan survives contact with the enemy,” he said. “But I think we’ll be better prepared for the next pandemic.”
Maria Frank, MD, FACP, SFHM, a hospitalist at Denver Health who chairs SHM’s Disaster Management Special Interest Group, says she got the bug for disaster preparation during postresidency training as an internist in emergency medicine. “I’m also the medical director for our biocontainment unit, created for infections like Ebola.” SHM’s SIG, which has 150 members, is now writing a review article on disaster planning for the field.
“I got a call on Dec. 27, 2019, about this new pneumonia, and they said, ‘We don’t know what it is, but it’s a coronavirus,’” she recalled. “When I got off the phone, I said, ‘Let’s make sure our response plan works and we have enough of everything on hand.’” Dr. Frank said she was expecting something more like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). “When they called the public health emergency of international concern for COVID, I was at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention meeting in Atlanta. It really wasn’t a surprise for us.”
All hospitals plan for disasters, although they use different names and have different levels of commitment, Dr. Frank said. What’s not consistent is the participation of hospitalists. “Even when a disaster is 100% trauma related, consider a hospital like mine that has at least four times as many hospitalists as surgeons at any given time. The hospitalists need to take overall management for the patients who aren’t actually in the operating room.”