Hospitalists are natural leaders in the COVID-19 battle


The importance of teamwork

Sunil Shah, MD, a hospitalist with Northwell Health’s Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, N.Y., is part of the massive hospital medicine team, including reassigned specialists and volunteers from across the country, deployed at Northwell hospitals in Greater New York City and Long Island during the COVID-19 surge. Northwell probably has cared for more COVID-19 patients than any other health system in the country, and at the height of the surge the intensity of hospital care was like nothing he’s ever seen. But he also expressed gratitude that doctors from other parts of the country were willing to come and help out.

Southside Hospital went almost overnight from a 200-bed acute facility to a full, 350-bed, regional COVID-19–only hospital. “On busy days, our entire hospital was like a floating ICU,” he said. “You’d hear ‘rapid response’ or ‘code blue’ over the intercom every few seconds. Normally we’d have a designated rapid response person for the day, but with COVID, everybody stepped in to help – whoever was closest,” he said.

Majid Sheikh, MD, a hospitalist at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, also became a go-to COVID-19 expert for his group. “I didn’t specifically volunteer, but my partner and I had the first cases, and the leadership group was happy to have us there,” he explained.

“One interesting thing I learned was the concept of the ‘happy’ hypoxemic patient, who is having a significant drop in oxygen saturation without developing any obvious signs of respiratory distress,” he said. “We’d be checking the accuracy of the reading and trying to figure out if it was real.” Emory was also one of the leaders in studying anticoagulant treatments for COVID-19 patients.

“Six months later I would say we’re definitely getting better outcomes on the floor, and our COVID patients aren’t landing in the ICU as easily,” Dr. Sheikh said. “It was scary at first, and doubly scary when doctors sometimes don’t feel they can say, ‘Hey, I’m scared too,’ or ‘By the way, I really don’t know what I’m doing.’ So, we’d be trying to reassure the patients when the information was coming to us in fragments.”

But he also believes that the pandemic has afforded hospitalists the opportunity to be the clinical detectives they were trained to be, sifting through clues. “I had to think more and really pay attention clinically in a much different way. You could say it was exciting and scary at the same time,” he said.

A human fix in the hospital

Dr. Pribula agreed that the pandemic has been both a difficult experience and a rewarding one. “I think of the people I first admitted. If they had shown up even a month later, would they still be with us?” He believes that his group and his field are going to get to a place where they have solid treatment plans for how to provide optimal care and how to protect providers from exposure.

One of the first COVID-19 patients in Fargo had dementia and was very distressed. “She had no idea why nobody was visiting or why we wouldn’t let her out of her room,” Dr. Pribula said. “Instead of reaching for sedatives, one of our nurses went into the room and talked with her, prayed a rosary, and played two hands of cards with her and didn’t have to sedate her. That’s what people need when they’re alone and scared. It wasn’t a medical fix but a human fix.”

A version of this article originally appeared on Medscape.com.


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