Switching gears at high speed

Michigan hospitalists prepare for COVID-19 care


When March began, Valerie Vaughn, MD, split her time between caring for general inpatients at the University of Michigan’s hospitals in Ann Arbor and doing research on how to reduce overuse of antibiotics in hospitals nationwide.

Dr. Valerie Vaughn

By the time the month was over, she had helped create a new kind of hospital team focused on caring for patients with COVID-19, learned how to provide an intensive level of care for the sickest among them, trained hundreds of physicians in how to do the same, and created free online learning tools for physicians nationwide.

Call it switching gears while driving a race car. Changing horses in the middle of a raging river. Or going to medical boot camp. Whatever the metaphor, Dr. Vaughn and her colleagues did it.

And now they’re hoping that sharing what they learned will help others if their hospitals go through the same thing.

Near the epicenter

Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s academic medical center, is a few dozen miles west of the Detroit hospitals that have become a national epicenter for COVID-19 cases. It’s gotten plenty of direct and transferred COVID-19 patients since mid-March.

Dr. Vineet Chopra, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Dr. Vineet Chopra

When Dr. Vaughn’s boss, division of hospital medicine chief Vineet Chopra, MD, was tapped to lead the creation of an all-COVID unit, he asked Dr. Vaughn to work with him and the team of hospitalists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurses, respiratory therapists, and other staff that had volunteered for the team.

They had 3 days to prepare.

The “SWAT team”, as Dr. Vaughn calls it, opened the RICU, or Regional Infectious Containment Unit, on March 16. They doubled the number of beds 2 weeks later.

By the end of March, the team had handed over the reins to a team of experienced intensive care professionals so the unit could focus on the sickest patients. And the RICU team had moved on to transforming other areas of the hospital, and training their staff, in the same way.

By early April, more than 200 beds across the University of Michigan’s hospitals were devoted to COVID-19 care. General medicine physicians who hadn’t practiced inside a hospital since their residency days – thanks to the ability to hand off to hospitalists – were being pulled into inpatient duty. Hospitalists were being pulled into caring for patients who would normally have been in the care of an intensive care team.

“What’s amazed me most is how much people have stepped up to the challenge,” says Dr. Vaughn. “As hard and uncomfortable as it is to do something you’re not typically doing, it can also be therapeutic to say how can I help, let me do something. Yes, they’re anxious, but they want to know how they can be as prepared as they can be, to be as helpful as possible to these patients.”

Dr. Chopra agrees. “The silver lining in all of this is that I have personally seen the best in us come to the surface. Nurses, physicians, pharmacists, and therapists have come together and have shown selflessness, kindness, empathy and resilience in profound ways.”


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