COVID-19: How Intensive Care Cardiology Can Inform the Response

Jim Kling

April 17, 2020

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Because of their place at the interface between critical care and cardiovascular medicine, critical care cardiologists are in a good position to come up with novel approaches to adapting critical care systems to the current crisis. Health care and clinical resources have been severely strained in some places, and increasing evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2 can cause injury to most organ systems. More than a quarter of hospitalized patients have cardiac injury, which can be a key reason for clinical deterioration.

An international group of critical care cardiologists led by Jason Katz, MD, of Duke University, Durham, N.C., offered suggestions for scalable models for critical care delivery in the context of COVID-19 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Critical care cardiology developed in response to changes in patient populations and their clinical needs. Respiratory insufficiency, heart failure, structural heart disease, and multisystem organ dysfunction became more common than patients with complicated acute MI, leading cardiologists in critical care cardiology to become more proficient in general critical care medicine, and to become leaders in forming collaborative multidisciplinary teams. The authors argued that COVID-19 is precipitating a similar need to adapt to the changing needs of patients.

"This pandemic should serve as a clarion call to our health care systems that we should continue to develop a nimble workforce that can adapt to change quickly during a crisis. We believe critical care cardiologists are well positioned to help serve society in this capacity," the authors wrote.

Surge Staging

They proposed four surge stages based in part on an American College of Chest Physicians–endorsed model (Chest 2014 Oct;146:e61S-74S), which regards a 25% capacity surge as minor. At the other end of the spectrum, a 200% surge is defined as a "disaster."

In minor surges (less than 25% increase), the traditional cardiac ICU (CICU) model can continue to be applied. During moderate (25%-100% increases) or major (100%-200%) surges, the critical care cardiologist should collaborate or consult within multiple health care teams. Physicians not trained in critical care can assist with care of intubated and critically ill patients under the supervision of a critical care cardiologist or under the supervision of a partnership between a non–cardiac critical care medicine provider and a cardiologist. The number of patients cared for by each team should increase in step with the size of the surge.

In disaster situations (more than 200% surge), there should be adaptive and dynamic staffing reorganization. The report included an illustration of a range of steps that can be taken, including alterations to staffing, regional care systems, resource management, and triage practices.

Scoring systems such as Sequential Organ Failure Assessment may be useful for triaging, but the authors also suggest employment of validated cardiac disease–specific scores, because traditional ICU measures don’t always apply well to CICU populations.

At the hospital level, deferrals should be made for elective cardiac procedures that require CICU or postanesthesia care unit recovery periods. Semielective procedures should be considered after risk-benefit considerations when delays could lead to morbidity or mortality.

Even some traditional emergency procedures may need to be reevaluated in the COVID-19 context: For example, some low-risk ST-segment elevation MI (STEMI) patients don’t require ICU care but are manageable in cardiac intermediate care beds instead. Historical triage practices should be reexamined to predict which STEMI patients will require ICU care.

Resource Allocation

The CICU work flow will be affected as some of its beds are opened up to COVID-19 patients. Standard philosophies of concentrating intense resources will have to give way to a utilitarian approach that evaluates operations based on efficiency, equity, and justice. Physician-patient contact should be minimized using technological links when possible, and rounds might be reorganized to first examine patients without COVID-19, in order to minimize between-patient spread.

Military medicine, which is used to ramping up operations during times of crisis, has potential lessons for the current pandemic. In the face of mass casualties, military physicians often turn to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization triage system, which separates patients into four categories: immediate, requiring lifesaving intervention; delayed, requiring intervention within hours to days; minimal, where the patient is injured but ambulatory; and expectant patients who are deceased or too injured to save. Impersonal though this system may be, it may be required in the most severe scenarios when resources are scarce or absent.

The authors reported no relevant financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Katz J et al. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2020 Apr 15. doi: 10.1016/j.annonc.2020.02.01.

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