Hospitalists are natural leaders in the COVID-19 battle


Christopher Pribula, MD, a hospitalist at Sanford Broadway Medical Center in Fargo, N.D., didn’t anticipate becoming his hospital’s resident expert on COVID-19. Having just returned from vacation in March, he agreed to cover for a colleague on what would become the special care unit. “When our hospital medicine group decided that it would be the COVID unit, I just ran with it,” he said. Dr. Pribula spent the next 18 days doing 8- to 14-hour shifts and learning as much as he could as the hospital – and the nation – wrestled with the pandemic.

“Because I was the first hospitalist, along with our infectious disease specialist, Dr. Avish Nagpal, to really engage with the virus, people came to me with their questions,” Dr. Pribula said. Working to establish protocols for the care of COVID-19 patients involved a lot of planning, from nursing protocols to discharge planning.

Dr. Pribula was part of the hospital’s incident command structure, thought about how the system could scale up for a potential surge, and worked with the North Dakota Medical Association to reach out to outlying medical centers on safety and infection control. He even drew on his prior work experience as a medical technologist doing negative-pressure containment in a cell-processing facility to help create the hospital’s negative-pressure unit in an old ICU.

“We did a lot of communication from the start. To a certain extent we were making it up as we went along, but we sat down and huddled as a team every day at 9 and 4,” he explained. “We started out with observation and retrospective research, and learned piece by piece. But that’s how science works.”

Hospitalists across the country have played leading roles in their hospitals’ and health systems’ response to the pandemic, and not just because they are on the front lines providing patient care. Their job as doctors who work full-time in the hospital makes them natural leaders in improving clinical quality and hospital administrative protocols as well as studying the latest information and educating their colleagues. Responding to the pandemic has required lots of planning, careful attention to schedules and assignments and staff stress, and working with other departments in the hospital and groups in the community, including public health authorities.

Where is hospital treatment for COVID-19 at today?

As knowledge has grown, Dr. Pribula said, COVID-19 treatment in the hospital has come to incorporate remdesivir, a broad-spectrum antiviral; dexamethasone, a common steroid medication; and convalescent plasma, blood products from people who have recovered from the illness. “We went from no steroids to giving steroids. We went from putting patients on ventilators to avoid acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) initially to now working to avoid intubation at all costs,” he said.

“What we found is that we need to pressure-support these patients. We do proning and CPAP while we let the lungs heal. By the time they arrive at the hospital, more often than not they’re on the backside of the viral load. But now we’re dealing with the body’s inflammatory response.”

Navneet Attri, MD, a hospitalist at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital in Santa Rosa, Calif., 50 miles north of San Francisco, experienced fears and uncertainties working at a hospital that treated early COVID patients from the Grand Princess cruise ship. Early on, she wrote a post describing her experience for The Hospitalist Leader, the Society of Hospital Medicine’s blog page.

Dr. Attri said she has gone through the gamut of emotions while caring for COVID-19 patients, addressing their fears and trying to support family members who aren’t allowed to enter the hospital to be at their loved one’s side. Sometimes, patient after patient with COVID-19 becomes almost too much. But seeing a lot of them in the intervening 6 months has increased her confidence level.

Understanding of how the disease is spread has continued to evolve, with a recent return to focusing on airborne transmission, she said. Frontline workers need N95 masks and eye shields, even if all of that PPE feels like a burden. Dr. Attri said she hardly notices the PPE anymore. “Putting it on is just a habit.”

She sits on Sonoma County’s COVID-19 surge planning group, which has representatives from the three local hospitals, the public health department, and other community agencies. “I report back to my hospitalist group about the situation in the community. Because our facilities were well prepared, our hospitals have not been overwhelmed,” she said.


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