If you think the grim coronavirus death toll is causing health care workers everywhere to always wash their hands, think again.
A recent research letter published in The Journal of Hospital Infection examined whether it’s “possible to achieve 100 percent hand hygiene compliance during the Covid-19 pandemic.” The medical center involved in the research, Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong, had reached a pre-Covid-19 hand hygiene rate of over 75 percent.
Yet the hospital’s goal of complete compliance proved surprisingly elusive. In one pediatric ward devoted to suspected or confirmed Covid-19 patients, doctors and nurses followed hand hygiene rules 100 percent of the time, but in another ward with similar patients and staff, compliance was 83 percent, or about one-fifth less.
Given Covid-19’s risk to providers as well as patients, this was “unexpected,” the researchers admitted. Most Popular In: Healthcare
The Queen Mary study supports what infection control experts have long maintained: awareness isn’t enough. Doctors and nurses, particularly during a pandemic, understand that hand hygiene is “the most important intervention” to reduce the staggering death toll from infections, as the American Journal of Infection Controlput it.
Last month marked the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Graunt, commonly regarded as the father of epidemiology. His major published work, Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality, called attention to the death statistics published weekly in London beginning in the late 16th century. Graunt was skeptical of how causes of death were ascribed, especially in times of plagues. Evidently, 400 years of scientific advances have done little to lessen his doubts!
A few days ago, Fox News reported that Colorado governor Jared Polis had “pushed back against recent coronavirus death counts, including those conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” The Centennial State had previously reported a COVID death count of 1,150 but then revised that number down to 878. That is but one of many reports raising questions about what counts as a COVID case or a COVID death. Beyond the raw numbers, many controversies also rage about derivative statistics such as “case fatality rates” and “infection fatality rates,” not just among the general public but between academics as well.
Of course, a large part of the wrangling is due not only to our unfamiliarity with this new disease but also to profound disagreements about how epidemics should be confronted. I don’t want to get into the weeds of those disputes here. Instead, I’d like to call attention to another problem, namely, the somewhat confused way in which we think about medical diagnosis in general, not just COVID diagnoses.
The way I see it, there are two concepts at play in how physicians view diagnoses and think about them in relation to medical practice. These two concepts—one more in line with the traditional role of the physician, the other adapted to modern healthcare demands—are at odds with one another even though they both shape the cognitive framework of doctors.
Something didn’t seem right to epidemiologist Eric Weinhandl when he glanced at an article published in the venerated Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on a crisp fall evening in Minnesota. Eric is a smart guy – a native Minnesotan and a math major who fell in love with clinical quantitative database-driven research because he happened to work with a nephrologist early in his training. After finishing his doctorate in epidemiology, he cut his teeth working with the Chronic Disease Research Group, a division of the Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute that has held The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) contract for the United States Renal Data System Coordinating Center. The research group Eric worked for from 2004-2015 essentially organized the data generated from almost every dialysis patient in the United States. He didn’t just work with the data as an end-user, he helped maintain the largest, and most important database on chronic kidney disease in the United States.
For all these reasons this particular study published in JAMA that sought to examine the association between dialysis facility ownership and access to kidney transplantation piqued Eric’s interest. The provocative hypothesis is that for-profit dialysis centers are financially motivated to keep patients hooked to dialysis machines rather than refer them for kidney transplantation. A number of observational trials have tracked better outcomes in not-for-profit settings, so the theory wasn’t implausible, but mulling over the results more carefully, Eric noticed how large the effect sizes reported in the paper were. Specifically, the hazard ratios for for-profit vs. non-profit were 0.36 for being put on a waiting list, 0.5 for receiving a living donor kidney transplant, 0.44 for receiving a deceased donor kidney transplant. This roughly translates to patients being one-half to one-third as likely to get referred for and ultimately receiving a transplant. These are incredible numbers when you consider it can be major news when a study reports a hazard ratio of 0.9. Part of the reason one doesn’t usually see hazard ratios that are this large is because that signals an effect size that’s so obvious to the naked eye that it doesn’t require a trial. There’s a reason there are no trials on the utility of cauterizing an artery to stop bleeding during surgery.
But it really wasn’t the hazard ratios that first struck his eye. What stuck out were the reported event rates in the study. 1.9 million incident end-stage kidney disease patients in 17 years made sense. The exclusion of 90,000 patients who were wait-listed or received a kidney transplant before ever getting on dialysis, and 250,000 patients for not having any dialysis facility information left ~1.5 million patients for the primary analysis. The original paper listed 121,000 first wait-list events, 23,000 living donor transplants and ~50,000 deceased donor transplants. But the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), an organization that manages the US organ transplantation system, reported 280,000 transplants during the same period.
The paper somehow was missing almost 210,000 transplants.
A number of politically tinged narratives have
divided physicians during the pandemic. It would be unfortunate if politics
obscured the major problem brought into stark relief by the pandemic: a system
that marginalizes physicians and strips them of agency.
In practices big and small, hospital-employed
or private practice, nursing homes or hospitals, there are serious issues
raising their heads for doctors and their patients.
No masks for you
When I walked into my office Thursday, March 12th, I assembled the office staff for the first time to talk about COVID. The prior weekend had been awash with scenes of mayhem in Italy, and I had come away with the dawning realization that my wishful thinking on the virus from Wuhan skipping us was dead wrong. The US focus had been on travel from China and other Far East hotspots. There was no such limitation on travel from Europe. The virus had clearly seeded Italy and possibly other parts of Europe heavily, and now the US was faced with the very real possibility that there was significant community spread that had occurred from travelers from Europe and Italy over the last month. I had assumed that seeing no cases in our hospitals and ICUs by early March meant the virus had been contained in China. That was clearly not the case.
Our testing apparatus had also largely been limited in the US to symptomatic patients who had been to high-risk countries. If Europe was seeded, this meant we had not been screening nearly enough people. When I heard the first few cases pop up in my county, it was clear the jig was up. It was pandemic panic mode time. There was a chance that there were thousands of cases in the community we didn’t know about and that we were weeks away from the die-off happening in hospitals in China and Italy. So what I told the staff the morning of March 12th was that we needed to start acting now as if there was significant spread of COVID in the community. This meant canceling clinic visits for all but urgent patients, wearing masks, trying to buy masks, attention to hand hygiene, cleaning rooms between patients, screening everyone for flu-like symptoms before coming to the office, and moving to a skeleton staff in the office. I left the office that day wearing a mask as I headed to the ER.
We have seen and heard about the classic symptoms of
COVID-19 at UCSF Medical Center, where I work as a cardiologist. Patients keep
coming in with pulmonary distress, pneumonia, and ultimately, Acute Respiratory
Distress Syndrome (ARDS) – the life-and-death situation that requires
However, I’m beginning to learn about other symptoms that some
doctors are noticing. There are numerous reports of other complications, especially
in advanced disease.
Elevation in D-Dimer, (a biomarker of coagulation system activation) has been associated with dramatically increased risk of death from COVID-19. This has led some to speculate that empiric treatment with anticoagulants might improve outcomes in these critically ill patients. Indeed, there was this recent publication of a retrospective analysis of anticoagulation with heparin or low molecular weight heparin showing an association with improved outcomes in COVID-19 patients in China.
One harsh Chicago winter, I remember calling a patient to cancel his appointment because we had deemed it too risky for patients to come in for routine visits—a major snowstorm made us rethink all non-essential appointments. Mr. Z was scheduled for his 3-month follow-up for an aggressive brain lymphoma that was diagnosed the prior year, during which he endured several rounds of intense chemotherapy. His discontent in hearing that his appointment was canceled was palpable; he confessed that he was very much looking forward to the visit so that he could greet the nurses, front-desk staff, and ask me how I was doing. My carefully crafted script explaining that his visit was “non-essential” and “postponable” fell on deaf ears. I was unprepared to hear Mr. Z question: if this is his care, shouldn’t he be the one to decide what’s essential and what’s not?
This is a question we are all grappling with in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The healthcare industry is struggling to decide how to handle patient visits to doctor’s offices, hospitals, and imaging centers, among others. Elective surgeries are being canceled and advocates are arguing that non-essential outpatient and ER visits should be stopped. Ideas are flying left and right on how best to triage patients in need. Everyone has an opinion, including those who ironically consider themselves non-opinionated.
an oncologist, these various views, sentiments, tweets, and posts give me
pause. I understand the rationale to minimize patients’ exposure and thus prevent
transmission. However, reconsidering what we should deem “essential” has made
me reflect broadly on our method of providing care. Suddenly, physicians are
becoming less concerned about (and constrained by) guidelines and requirements.
Learning how to practice “essential oncology” may leave lasting changes in our
Practices cannot survive the COVID-19 cash flow crisis
By JEFF LIVINGSTON, MD
Will doctors be able to keep their practices open during the worst pandemic in our lifetime? Our country needs every available doctor in the country to fight the challenges of Covid-19. Doctors working in independent practices face an immediate cash flow crisis threatening their ability to continue services.
The CARES Act was signed into law on Friday, March 27, 2020. The law offers much-needed help to the acute needs of hospitals and the medical supply chain. This aid will facilitate the production of critical supplies such as ventilators and PPE. The law failed to consider the needs of the doctors who will run the ventilators and wear the masks.
Cash flow crisis
Private-practice physician groups experienced an unprecedented reduction in in-office visits as they moved to provide a safe and secure environment for patients and staff. In compliance with CDC guidelines, practices suspended preventative care, nonurgent visits, nonemergent surgery, and office procedures.
These necessary practice changes help keep patients safe and slow the spread of Covid-19. The unintended consequence is an unreported and unrecognized cash flow crisis threatening the viability of physician practices.
By CHITRA CHHABRA KOHLI MD, AJAY KOHLI MD, and VINAY KOHLI MD, MBA
With a doubling time of cases estimated between 3 days within the U.S. and about 6 days globally (at the time of this writing) COVID-19 is demonstrating its terrifying virulence as it spreads across the world.
What’s perhaps equally terrifying, if not more, is the absence of a known cure or treatment plan for COVID-19. While there has been a lot of attention focused on Hydroxychloroquine and Azithromycin, there has been debate on the scientific validity of these treatment options, either as therapy or as prophylaxis. The impact of a solution certainly has far reaching potential, the scope of the challenge is overwhelmingly large. The editor-in-chief of Science recently wrote that the efforts to find a cure are not just ”fixing a plane while it’s flying — it’s fixing a plane that’s flying while its blueprints are still being drawn.”
There is a promising therapy that may help us weather the COVID-19 storm and, perhaps, flatten the curve. It’s based around science that defines immunology and has already been used in many different diseases, going as far back as the 1918 flu pandemic. This potential treatment is convalescent plasma therapy — using antibodies from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 and then transfusing them into patients who are currently mounting an immune response against the rapidly rising viral loads of COVID-19.
Occasionally, you get handed a question you know little about, but it’s clear you need to know more. Like most of us these days, I was chatting with my colleagues about the novel coronavirus. It goes by several names: SARS-CoV-2, 2019-nCoV or COVID-19 but I’ll just call it COVID. Declared a pandemic on March 12, 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID is diagnosed by laboratory test – PCR. The early PCR test used in Wuhan was apparently low sensitivity (30-60%), lengthy to run (days), and in short supply. As CT scanning was relatively available, it became an importantdiagnostic tool for suspected COVID cases in Wuhan.
The prospect of scanning thousands of contagious patients was daunting, with many radiologists arguing back and forth about its appropriateness. As the pandemic has evolved, we now have better and faster PCR tests and most radiologists do not believe that CT scanning has a role for diagnosis of COVID, but rather should be reserved for its complications. Part of the reason is the concern of transmission of COVID to other patients or healthcare workers via the radiology department.
But then someone asked: “After you have scanned a patient for COVID, how long will the room be down?” And nobody really could answer – I certainly couldn’t. A recent white paper put forth by radiology leaders suggested anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours. A general review of infection control information for the radiologist and radiologic technologist can be found in Radiographics.
So, let’s go down the rabbit hole of infection control in the radiology department. While I’m a radiologist, and will speak about radiology-specific concerns, the fundamental rationale behind it is applicable to other ancillary treatment rooms in the hospital or outpatient arena, provided the appropriate specifics about THAT environment is obtained from references held by the CDC.
I got asked the other day to comment for Wired on the role of AI in Covid-19 detection, in particular for use with CT scanning. Since I didn’t know exactly what resources they had on the ground in China, I could only make some generic vaguely negative statements. I thought it would be worthwhile to expand on those ideas here, so I am writing two blog posts on the topic, on CT scanning for Covid-19, and on using AI on those CT scans.
As background, the pro-AI argument goes like this:
CT screening detects 97% of Covid-19, viral PCR only detects 70%!
A radiologist takes 5-10 minutes to read a CT chest scan. AI can do it in a second or two.
If you use CT for screening, there will be so many studies that radiologists will be overwhelmed.
In this first post, I will explain why CT, with or without AI, is not worthwhile for Covid-19 screening and diagnosis, and why that 97% sensitivity report is unfounded and unbelievable.
Next post, I will address the use of AI for this task specifically.