Over the last several weeks, hospitals and health systems have focused on the COVID-19 epidemic, preparing and expanding bed capacities for the surge of admissions both in intensive care and medical units. An indirect impact of this has been the reduction in outpatient staffing and resources, with the shifting of staff for inpatient care. Many areas seem to have passed the peak in the number of cases and are now seeing a plateau or downward trend in the admissions to acute care facilities.
During this period, there has been a noticeable downtrend in patients being evaluated in the ED, or admitted for decompensation of chronic conditions like heart failure, COPD and diabetes mellitus, or such acute conditions as stroke and MI. Studies from Italy and Spain, and closer to home from Atlanta and Boston, point to a significant decrease in numbers of ST-elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI) admissions.1 Duke Health saw a decrease in stroke admissions in their hospitals by 34%.2
One could argue that these patients are in fact presenting with COVID-19 or similar symptoms as is evidenced by the studies linking the severity of SARS-Co-V2 infection to chronic conditions like diabetes mellitus and obesity.2 On the other hand, the message of social isolation and avoidance of nonurgent visits could lead to delays in care resulting in patients presenting sicker and in advanced stages.3 Also, this has not been limited to the adult population. For example, reports indicate that visits to WakeMed’s pediatric emergency rooms in Wake County, N.C., were down by 60%.2
We could well be seeing a calm before the storm. While it is anticipated that there may be a second surge of COVID-19 cases, health systems would do well to be prepared for the “third surge,” consisting of patients coming in with chronic medical conditions for which they have been, so far, avoiding follow-up and managing at home, and acute medical conditions with delayed diagnoses. The impact could likely be more in the subset of patients with limited access to health care, including medications and follow-up, resulting in a disproportionate burden on safety-net hospitals.
Compounding this issue would be the economic impact of the current crisis on health systems, their staffing, and resources. Several major organizations have already proposed budget cuts and reduction of the workforce, raising significant concerns about the future of health care workers who put their lives at risk during this pandemic.4 There is no guarantee that the federal funding provided by the stimulus packages will save jobs in the health care industry. This problem needs new leadership thinking, and every organization that puts employees over profits margins will have a long-term impact on communities.
Another area of concern is a shift in resources and workflow from ambulatory to inpatient settings for the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need for revamping the ambulatory services with reshifting the workforce. As COVID-19 cases plateau, the resurgence of non-COVID–related admissions will require additional help in inpatient settings. Prioritizing the ambulatory services based on financial benefits versus patient outcomes is also a major challenge to leadership.5
Lastly, the current health care crisis has led to significant stress, both emotional and physical, among frontline caregivers, increasing the risk of burnout.6 How leadership helps health care workers to cope with these stressors, and the resources they provide, is going to play a key role in long term retention of their talent, and will reflect on the organizational culture. Though it might seem trivial, posttraumatic stress disorder related to this is already obvious, and health care leadership needs to put every effort in providing the resources to help prevent burnout, in partnership with national organizations like the Society of Hospital Medicine and the American College of Physicians.
The expansion of telemedicine has provided a unique opportunity to address several of these issues while maintaining the nonpharmacologic interventions to fight the epidemic, and keeping the cost curve as low as possible.7 Extension of these services to all ambulatory service lines, including home health and therapy, is the next big step in the new health care era. Virtual check-ins by physicians, advance practice clinicians, and home care nurses could help alleviate the concerns regarding delays in care of patients with chronic conditions, and help identify those at risk. This would also be of help with staffing shortages, and possibly provide much needed support to frontline providers.
Dr. Prasad is currently medical director of care management and a hospitalist at Advocate Aurora Health in Milwaukee. He was previously quality and utilization officer and chief of the medical staff at Aurora Sinai Medical Center. Dr. Prasad is cochair of SHM’s IT Special Interest Group, sits on the HQPS Committee, and is president of SHM’s Wisconsin Chapter. Dr. Palabindala is the medical director, utilization management and physician advisory services, at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson. He is an associate professor of medicine and academic hospitalist in the UMMC School of Medicine.
1. Wood S. TCTMD. 2020 Apr 2. “The mystery of the missing STEMIs during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
2. Stradling R. The News & Observer. 2020 Apr 21. “Fewer people are going to Triangle [N.C.] emergency rooms, and that could be a bad thing.”
3. Kasanagottu K. USA Today. 2020 Apr 15. “Don’t delay care for chronic illness over coronavirus. It’s bad for you and for hospitals.”
4. Snowbeck C. The Star Tribune. 2020 Apr 11. “Mayo Clinic cutting pay for more than 20,000 workers.”
5. LaPointe J. RevCycle Intelligence. 2020 Mar 31. “How much will the COVID-19 pandemic cost hospitals?”
6. Gavidia M. AJMC. 2020 Mar 31. “Sleep, physician burnout linked amid COVID-19 pandemic.”
7. Hollander JE and Carr BG. N Engl J Med. 2020 Apr 30;382(18):1679-81. “Virtually perfect? Telemedicine for COVID-19.”