Navigating challenges in COVID-19 care

Early strategies for adapting to a moving target


During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital groups and systems scrambled to create protocols and models to respond to the novel coronavirus. In the pre-pandemic world, hospital groups have traditionally focused on standardizing clinical protocols and care models that rely on evidence-based medical practices or extended experience.

During COVID-19, however, our team at Dell Medical School needed to rapidly and iteratively standardize care based on evolving science, effectively communicate that approach across rotating hospital medicine physicians and residents, and update care models, workflows, and technology every few days. In this article, we review our initial experiences, describe the strategies we employed to respond to these challenges, and reflect on the lessons learned and our proposed strategy moving forward.

Early pandemic challenges

Our initial inpatient strategies focused on containment, infection prevention, and bracing ourselves rather than creating a COVID Center of Excellence (COE). In fact, our hospital network’s initial strategy was to have COVID-19 patients transferred to a different hospital within our network. However, as March progressed, we became the designated COVID-19 hospital in our area’s network because of the increasing volume of patients we saw.

Patients from the surrounding regional hospitals were transferring their COVID-19 patients to us and we quickly saw the wide spectrum of illness, ranging from mild pneumonia to severe disease requiring mechanical ventilation upon admission. All frontline providers felt the stress of needing to find treatment options quickly for our sickest patients. We realized that to provide safe, effective, and high-quality care to COVID-19 patients, we needed to create a sustainable and standardized interdisciplinary approach.

COVID-19 testing was a major challenge when the pandemic hit as testing kits and personal protective equipment were in limited supply. How would we choose who to test or empirically place in COVID-19 isolation? In addition, we faced questions surrounding safe discharge practices, especially for patients who could not self-isolate in their home (if they even had one).

In March, emergency use authorization (EUA) for hydroxychloroquine was granted by the U.S. FDA despite limited data. This resulted in pressure from the public to use this drug in our patients. At the same time, we saw that some patients quickly got better on their own with supportive care. As clinicians striving to practice evidence-based medicine, we certainly did not want to give patients an unproven therapy that could do more harm than good. We also felt the need to respond with statements about what we could do that worked – rather than negotiate about withholding certain treatments featured in the news. Clearly, a “one-size-fits-all” approach to therapeutics was not going to work in treating patients with COVID-19.

We realized we were going to have to learn and adapt together – quickly. It became apparent that we needed to create structures to rapidly adjudicate and integrate emerging science into standardized clinical care delivery.

Solutions in the form of better structures

In response to these challenges, we created early morning meetings or “huddles” among COVID-19 care teams and hospital administration. A designated “COVID ID” physician from Infectious Diseases would meet with hospitalist and critical care teams each morning in our daily huddles to review all newly admitted patients, current hospitalized patients, and patients with pending COVID-19 tests or suspected initial false-negative tests.

Together, and via the newly developed Therapeutics and Informatics Committee, we created early treatment recommendations based upon available evidence, treatment availability, and the patient’s severity of illness. Within the first ten days of admitting our first patient, it had become standard practice to review eligible patients soon after admission for therapies such as convalescent plasma, and, later, remdesivir and steroids.

We codified these consensus recommendations and processes in our Dell Med COVID Manual, a living document that was frequently updated and disseminated to our group. It created a single ‘true north’ of standardized workflows for triage, diagnosis, management, discharge coordination, and end-of-life care. The document allowed for continuous and asynchronous multi-person collaboration and extremely rapid cycles of improvement. Between March and December 2020, this 100-page handbook went through more than 130 iterations.

Strategy for the future

This approach – communicating frequently, adapting on a daily to weekly basis, and continuously scanning the science for opportunities to improve our care delivery – became the foundation of our approach and the Therapeutics and Informatics Committee. Just as importantly, this created a culture of engagement, collaboration, and shared problem-solving that helped us stay organized, keep up to date with the latest science, and innovate rather than panic when faced with ongoing unpredictability and chaos in the early days of the pandemic.

As the pandemic enters into its 13th month, we carry this foundation and our strategies forward. The infrastructure and systems of communication that we have set in place will allow us to be nimble in our response as COVID-19 numbers surge in our region.

Dr. Gandhi is an assistant professor in the department of internal medicine at Dell Medical School, University of Texas, Austin. Dr. Mondy is chief of the division of infectious disease and associate professor in the department of internal medicine at Dell Medical School. Dr. Busch and Dr. Brode are assistant professors in the department of internal medicine at Dell Medical School. This article is part of a series originally published in The Hospital Leader, the official blog of SHM.

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