Hospitalists stretch into new roles on COVID-19 front lines

‘Every single day is different’


In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, health systems, hospitals, and hospitalists – especially in hot spots like New York, Detroit, or Boston – have been challenged to stretch limits, redefine roles, and redeploy critical staff in response to rapidly changing needs on the ground.

Dr. Valerie Vaughn wearing PPE at Michigan Health

Dr. Valerie Vaughn wearing personal protective equipment at Michigan Health

Many hospitalists are working above and beyond their normal duties, sometimes beyond their training, specialty, or comfort zone and are rising to the occasion in ways they never imagined. These include doing shifts in ICUs, working with ventilator patients, and reporting to other atypical sites of care like postanesthesia care units and post-acute or step-down units.

Valerie Vaughn, MD, MSc, a hospitalist with Michigan Medicine and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, was doing research on how to reduce overuse of antibiotics in hospitals when the COVID-19 crisis hit and dramatically redefined her job. “We were afraid that we might have 3,000 to 5,000 hospitalized COVID patients by now, based on predictive modeling done while the pandemic was still growing exponentially,” she explained. Although Michigan continues to have high COVID-19 infection rates, centered on nearby Detroit, “things are a lot better today than they were 4 weeks ago.”

Dr. Vaughn helped to mobilize a team of 25 hospitalists, along with other health care providers, who volunteered to manage COVID-19 patients in the ICU and other hospital units. She was asked to help develop an all-COVID unit called the Regional Infectious Containment Unit or RICU, which opened March 16. Then, when the RICU became full, it was supplemented by two COVID-19 Moderate Care Units staffed by hospitalists who had “learned the ropes” in the RICU.

Both of these new models were defined in relation to the ICUs at Michigan Medicine – which were doubling in capacity, up to 200 beds at last count – and to the provision of intensive-level and long-term ventilator care for the sickest patients. The moderate care units are for patients who are not on ventilators but still very sick, for example, those receiving massive high-flow oxygen, often with a medical do-not-resuscitate/do-not-intubate order. “We established these units to do everything (medically) short of vents,” Dr. Vaughn said.

“We are having in-depth conversations about goals of care with patients soon after they arrive at the hospital. We know outcomes from ventilators are worse for COVID-positive patients who have comorbidities, and we’re using that information to inform these conversations. We’ve given scripts to clinicians to help guide them in leading these conversations. We can do other things than `use ventilators to manage their symptoms. But these are still difficult conversations,” Dr. Vaughn said.

Boston Hope Medical Center

“We also engaged palliative care early on and asked them to round with us on every [COVID] patient – until demand got too high.” The bottleneck has been the number of ICU beds available, she explained. “If you want your patient to come in and take that bed, make sure you’ve talked to the family about it.”

The COVID-19 team developed guidelines printed on pocket cards addressing critical care issues such as a refresher on how to treat acute respiratory distress syndrome and how to use vasopressors. (See the COVID-19 Continuing Medical Education Portal for web-accessible educational resources developed by Michigan Health).

It’s amazing how quickly patients can become very sick with COVID-19, Dr. Vaughn said. “One of the good things to happen from the beginning with our RICU is that a group of doctors became COVID care experts very quickly. We joined four to five hospitalists and their teams with each intensivist, so one critical care expert is there to do teaching and answer clinicians’ questions. The hospitalists coordinate the COVID care and talk to the families.”

Working on the front lines of this crisis, Dr. Vaughn said, has generated a powerful sense of purpose and camaraderie, creating bonds like in war time. “All of us on our days off feel a twinge of guilt for not being there in the hospital. The sense of gratitude we get from patients and families has been enormous, even when we were telling them bad news. That just brings us to tears.”

One of the hardest things for the doctors practicing above their typical scope of practice is that, when something bad happens, they can’t know whether it was a mistake on their part or not, she noted. “But I’ve never been so proud of our group or to be a hospitalist. No one has complained or pushed back. Everyone has responded by saying: ‘What can I do to help?’ ”


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