As the coronavirus pandemic has swept across America, so have advisories for social distancing. As of April 2, stay-at-home orders had been given in 38 states and parts of 7 more, affecting about 300 million people. Most of these people have been asked to maintain 6 feet of separation to anyone outside their immediate family and to avoid all avoidable contacts.
Typical hospital medicine patients at an academic hospital, however, traditionally receive visits from their hospitalist, an intern, a resident, and sometimes several medical students, pharmacists, and case managers. At University of California, San Diego, Health, many of these visits would occur during Focused Interdisciplinary Team rounds, with providers moving together in close proximity.
Asymptomatic and presymptomatic spread of coronavirus have been documented, which means distancing is a good idea for everyone. The risks of traditional patient visits during the coronavirus pandemic include spread to both patients (at high risk of complications) and staff (taken out of the workforce during surge times). Even if coronavirus were not a risk, visits to isolation rooms consume PPE, which is in short supply.
In response to the pandemic, UCSD Hospital Medicine drafted guidelines for the reduction of patient contacts. Our slide presentations and written guidelines were then distributed to physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other staff by our pandemic response command center. Key points include the following:
- Target one in-person MD visit per day for stable patients. This means that attending reexaminations of patients seen by residents, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and so on would not be done for billing or teaching purposes, only when clinically necessary.
- Use phone or video conferencing for follow-up discussions unless direct patient contact is needed.
- Consider skipping daily exams on patients who do not require them, such as patients awaiting placement or stably receiving long courses of antibiotics. Interview them remotely or from the door instead.
- Conduct team rounds, patient discussions, and handoffs with all members 6 feet apart or by telephone or video. Avoid shared work rooms. Substitute video conferences for in-person meetings. Use EMR embedded messaging to reduce face-to-face discussions.
- Check if a patient is ready for a visit before donning PPE to avoid waste.
- Explain to patients that distancing is being conducted to protect them. In our experience, when patients are asked about distancing, they welcome the changes.
We have also considered that most patient visits are generated by nurses and assistants. To increase distancing and reduce PPE waste, we have encouraged nurses and pharmacists to maximize their use of remote communication with patients and to suggest changes to care plans and come up with creative solutions to reduce traffic. We specifically suggested the following changes to routine care:
- Reduce frequency of taking vital signs, such as just daily or as needed, in stable patients (for example, those awaiting placement).
- Reduce checks for alcohol withdrawal and neurologic status as soon as possible, and stop fingersticks in patients with well-controlled diabetes not receiving insulin.
- Substitute less frequently administered medications where appropriate if doing so would reduce room traffic (such as enoxaparin for heparin, ceftriaxone for cefazolin, naproxen for ibuprofen, or patient-controlled analgesia for as needed morphine).
- Place intravenous pumps in halls if needed – luckily, our situation has not required these measures in San Diego.
- Explore the possibility of increased patient self-management (self-dosed insulin or inhalers) where medically appropriate.
- Eliminate food service and janitorial trips to isolation rooms unless requested by registered nurse.
There are clear downsides to medical distancing for hospital medicine patients. Patients might have delayed diagnosis of new conditions or inadequate management of conditions requiring frequent assessment, such as alcohol withdrawal. Opportunities for miscommunication (either patient-provider or provider-provider) may be increased with distancing. Isolation also comes with emotional costs such as stress and feelings of isolation or abandonment. Given the dynamic nature of the pandemic response, we are continually reevaluating our distancing guidelines to administer the safest and most effective hospital care possible as we approach California’s expected peak coronavirus infection period.
Dr. Jenkins is professor and chair of the Patient Safety Committee in the Division of Hospital Medicine at UCSD. Dr. Seymann is clinical professor and vice chief for academic affairs, UCSD division of hospital medicine. Dr. Horman and Dr. Bell are hospitalists and associate professors of medicine at UC San Diego Health.