COVID-19 and patient safety in the medical office


Editor’s note: This article has been provided by The Doctors Company, the exclusively endorsed medical malpractice carrier for the Society of Hospital Medicine.

As the pandemic hits its third nationwide surge, families are gathering for the holidays, and medical practices are preparing for a potential increase in cases. Medical offices in states that were not strongly affected by the first and second waves of the virus may now be facing an influx of COVID-19 patients. Therefore, medical offices must remain very attentive to the widespread outbreak of COVID-19, continuing to proactively take steps to safely manage patients while protecting clinical staff.

Here are tips and resources for this season of the pandemic:

  • Documentation: Maintain administrative records of how you have adapted to the evolving crisis, including the challenges you faced. For details, see Keep a COVID-19 Diary: Document Now in Case of Future Lawsuits.
  • Legislation and Guidance: Reference the CDC; your state medical board; professional societies; and federal, state, and local authorities daily for public health guidance and new legislation, as this continues to be a fluid situation.
  • Screening Criteria: Follow the CDC’s patient assessment protocol for early disease detection for patients presenting to your practice. Patients should be screened using these guidelines: Overview of Testing for SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19). Essential visitors to your facility should also be assessed for symptoms of coronavirus and contact exposure and redirected to remain outside if suspect.
  • Accepting Patients: Do not turn patients away simply because a patient calls with acute respiratory symptoms. Refusing assessment/care may lead to concerns of patient abandonment.
  • Designated Triage Location: Check with your local public health authorities for locations designated to triage suspected patients, so exposure is limited in general medical offices.
  • Telehealth Triage: Licensed staff should be trained in triage protocol to determine which patients can be managed safely at home. See Healthcare Facilities: Managing Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic. The Doctors Company offers resources on telemedicine in our COVID-19 Telehealth Resource Center.
  • Patient Testing: When there is a reasonable presumption that a patient may have been exposed to COVID-19, contact the local or state health department to coordinate testing using available community resources. See the CDC’s Testing for COVID-19 , the COVID-19 Testing Overview, and the Clinician Call Center.
  • Elective Services: Check with regional governmental and health authorities on the provision of nonessential and elective health care visits and group-related activities. Many states continue or have reinstated restrictions on the provision of nonurgent, elective surgeries and procedures.
  • Patient Precautions: Educational resources, including posters for use in the medical office, are available from the WHO and for health care workers from the CDC (Contact Precautions, Droplet Precautions, and Airborne Precautions). Reference the CDC’s and Interim Clinical Guidance for Management of Patients with Confirmed Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) for patient management guidance.
  • Provider/Staff Precautions: Follow Standard Precautions and Transmission-Based Precautions, including gloves, gowns, protective eyewear, and NIOSH-certified N95 respirators that have been properly fit-tested. If there is a shortage of N95 respirators in your facility, access current CDC respirator recommendations and review Optimizing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Supplies.
  • Limit Exposure: Limit staff exposure to suspected patients, with the exam room door kept closed. Ideally, the designated exam room should be at the back of the office, far away from other staff and patients.
  • Surface Disinfection: Once the patient exits the room, conduct surface disinfection while staff continues to wear PPE.
  • Patient Education: Provide up-to-date, factual information on the virus to suspected COVID-19–positive patients and their close contacts.
  • Provider/Staff Exposure: Screen health care personnel daily for symptoms/contacts relevant to COVID-19. Any unprotected occupational exposure by staff members should be assessed and monitored. See Interim U.S. Guidance for Risk Assessment and Work Restrictions for Healthcare Personnel with Potential Exposure to COVID-19. Should providers and/or staff test positive within your facility, conduct and document a risk assessment identifying contacts, type of interaction, and PPE in use, then contact local health authorities for additional instruction. The CDC provides guidance here under the section “Infection Control.” The health department may assist with patient notification if determined to be necessary. For return-to-work guidance, review the Criteria for Return to Work for Healthcare Personnel with SARS-CoV-2 Infection (Interim Guidance).
  • Staff Training: Provide and document additional staff training as protocols change. Maintain training records in administrative files.

Ms. Hill is senior patient safety risk manager at The Doctors Company. The guidelines suggested here are not rules, do not constitute legal advice, and do not ensure a successful outcome. The ultimate decision regarding the appropriateness of any treatment must be made by each health care provider considering the circumstances of the individual situation and in accordance with the laws of the jurisdiction in which the care is rendered.

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