Human sitters in the COVID era

Data collection needed for care of suicidal hospitalized patients


I am writing this commentary to bring to readers’ attention a medical and ethical complexity related to human sitters for presumably suicidal, COVID-19–positive hospitalized patients.

Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, chief of psychiatry at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie

To shape and bundle the ethics issues addressed here into a single question, I offer the following: Should policies and practices requiring that patients in presumed need of a sitter because of assessed suicidality change when the patient is COVID-19–positive? Although the analysis might be similar when a sitter is monitoring a Patient Under Investigation (PUI), here I focus only on COVID-19–positive patients. Similarly, there are other reasons for sitters, of course, such as to prevent elopement, or, if a patient is in restraints, to prevent the patient from pulling out lines or tubes. Again, discussion of some of these ethical complications is beyond the scope of this piece. Just considering the matter of potential suicidality and sitters is complex enough. And so, to start, I sought out existing sources for guidance.

In looking for such sources, I first turned to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services before COVID-19. CMS has required that there be a sitter for a patient who is suicidal and that the sitter remain in the room so that the sitter can intervene expeditiously if the patient tries to hurt himself or herself. There has been no change in this guidance since the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. To the best of my knowledge, there is no substantive guidance for protecting sitters from contagion other than PPE. Given this, it begs the question: Shouldn’t the CMS guidance be changed to allow for hospitals to study different approaches to contagion reduction for sitters?

In my hospital, I already have begun discussing the potential risks of harm and potential benefits to our suicidal patients of having a sitter directly outside the patient’s room. I also have considered whether to have one sitter watching several room cameras at once, commonly referred to as “telehealth strategies.”

To be sure, sitting for hours in the room of a COVID-19–positive patient is onerous. The sitter is required to be in full PPE (N-95 mask, gown, and gloves), which is hot and uncomfortable. Current practice is resource intensive in other ways. It requires changing out the sitter every 2 hours, which uses substantial amounts of PPE and multiple sitters.

Regardless, however, there are really no data upon which to base any sound ethics judgment about what should or should not be tried. We just have no information on how to attempt to balance potential risks and prospects for the benefit of whom and when. And, given that good clinical ethics always begin with the facts, I write this piece to see whether readers have thought about these issues before – and whether any of clinicians have started collecting the valuable data needed to begin making sound ethical judgments about how to care for our presumably suicidal COVID-19–positive patients and the sitters who watch over them.

Dr. Ritchie is chair of psychiatry at Medstar Washington Hospital Center and professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, Washington. She has no disclosures and can be reached at [email protected].

This column is an outcome of a discussion that occurred during Psych/Ethics rounds on June 5, and does not represent any official statements of Medstar Washington Hospital Center or any entity of the MedStar Corp. Dr. Ritchie would like to thank Evan G. DeRenzo, PhD, of the John J. Lynch Center for Ethics, for her thoughtful review of a previous draft of this commentary.

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