In a Public Health Crisis, Obstetric Collaboration Is Mission-Critical

Mark N. Simon, MD

March 04, 2020

With the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) monopolizing the news cycle, fear and misinformation are at an all-time high. Public health officials and physicians are accelerating education outreach to the public to address misinformation, and identify and care for patients who may have been exposed to the virus.

In times of public health crises, pregnant women have unique and pressing concerns about their personal health and the health of their unborn children. While not often mentioned in major news coverage, obstetricians play a critical role during health crises because of their uniquely personal role with patients during all stages of pregnancy, providing this vulnerable population with the most up-to-date information and following the latest guidelines for recommended care.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 is breaking unfamiliar new ground. We know that pregnant women are at higher risk for viral infection – annually, influenza is a grim reminder that pregnant women are more immunocompromised than the general public – but we do not yet have data to confirm or refute that pregnant women have a higher susceptibility to COVID-19 than the rest of the adult population. We also do not know enough about COVID-19 transmission, including whether the virus can cross the transplacental barrier to affect a fetus, or whether it can be transmitted through breast milk.

As private practice community obstetricians work to protect their patients during this public health crisis, Ob hospitalists can play an important role in supporting them in the provision of patient care.

First, Ob hospitalists are highly-trained specialists who can help ensure that pregnant patients who seek care at the hospital – either with viral symptoms or with separate pregnancy-related concerns – are protected during triage until the treating community obstetrician can take the reins.

When a pregnant woman presents at a hospital, in most cases she will bypass the ED and instead be sent directly to the labor and delivery (L&D) unit. During a viral outbreak, there are two major concerns with this approach. For one thing, it means an immunocompromised woman is being sent through the hospital to get to L&D, and along the path, is exposed to every airborne pathogen in the facility (and, if she is already infected, exposes others along the way). In addition, in hospitals without an Ob hospitalist on site, the patient generally is not immediately triaged by a physician, physician's assistant, or nurse practitioner upon arrival because those clinicians are not consistently on site in L&D.

In times of viral pandemics, new approaches are warranted. For hospitals with contracted L&D management with hospitalists, hospitalists work closely with department heads to implement protocols loosely based on the Emergency Severity Index (ESI) model established by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Just as the ESI algorithm guides clinical stratification of patients, in times of reported viral outbreaks, L&D should consider triage of all pregnant women at higher levels of acuity, regardless of presentation status. In particular, if they show clinical symptoms, they should be masked, accompanied to the L&D unit by protected personnel, separated from other patients in areas of forced proximity such as hallways and elevators, and triaged in a secure single-patient room with a closed door (ideally at negative pressure relative to the surrounding areas).

If the patient has traveled to an area of outbreak, reports exposure to travelers who have visited high-risk areas, has had contact with individuals who tested positive for COVID-19, or exhibits any clinical symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, dry cough, fatigue, etc.), her care management should adhere to standing hospital emergency protocols. Following consultation with the assigned community obstetrician, the Ob hospitalist and hospital staff should contact their local/state health departments immediately for all cases of patients who show symptoms to determine if the patient meets requirements for a person under investigation (PUI) for COVID-19. The state/local health department will work with clinicians to collect, store, and ship clinical specimens appropriately. Very ill patients may need to be treated in an intensive care setting where respiratory status can be closely monitored.

At Ob Hospitalist Group, our body of evidence from our large national footprint has informed the development of standard sets of protocols for delivery complications such as preeclampsia and postpartum hemorrhage, as well as a cesarean section reduction toolkit to combat medically unnecessary cesarean sections. OB hospitalists therefore can assist with refining COVID-19 protocols specifically for the L&D setting, using evidence-based data to tailor protocols to address public health emergencies as they evolve.

The second way that Ob hospitalists can support their colleagues is by covering L&D 24/7 so that community obstetricians can focus on other pressing medical needs. From our experience with other outbreaks such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and influenza, we anticipate that obstetricians in private practice likely will have their hands full juggling a regular patient load, fielding calls from concerned patients, and caring for infected or ill patients who are being treated in an outpatient setting. Adding to that plate the need to rush to the hospital to clinically assess a patient for COVID-19 or for a delivery only compounds stress and exhaustion. At Ob Hospitalist Group, our hospitalist programs provide coverage and support to community obstetricians until they can arrive at the hospital or when the woman has no assigned obstetrician, reducing the pressure on community obstetricians to rush through their schedules.

Diagnostic and pharmaceutical companies are collaborating with public health officials to expedite diagnostic testing staff, hospital treatment capacity, vaccines, and even early therapies that may help to minimize severity. But right now, as clinicians work to protect their vulnerable patients, a close collaboration between community obstetricians and Ob hospitalists will help to keep patients and health care personnel safe and healthy – a goal that should apply not only to public health crises, but to the provision of maternal care every day.

Dr. Simon is chief medical officer at Ob Hospitalist Group (OBHG), is a board-certified ob.gyn., and former head of the department of obstetrics and gynecology for a U.S. hospital. He has no relevant conflicts of interest or financial disclosures. Email him at obnews@mdedge.com.

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com.

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