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Critical Care Nurse Shortage During COVID-19 Pandemic: A Call for Nurse Anesthesia Students to Bedside

By TONYCHRIS NNAKA

In March of 2020, when we had limited knowledge on the infectivity and virulence of the virus that causes COVID-19, I joined a team of critical care nurses who were willing to risk their lives to care for those suffering from COVID-19. As a full-time PhD student in nursing, a new parent to my infant son, a primary caregiver to my 73-year-old mother, and as someone with a known history of severe asthma, I knew that I was embarking on a journey that could potentially cost me my professional and personal dreams and endanger those I care for the most in life: my family. My intentions to practice only part-time as a critical care nurse while pursuing full-time studies were halted after only two weeks of managing critically ill COVID-19 patients early in the pandemic. The countless code blues and unprecedented levels of patient deaths made it clear that we were in uncharted territory.  After seeing the pain and fear on the faces of my nursing peers, I knew I could never leave them behind in this new battlefield. So, I stayed at bedside full-time for a year while also maintaining my full-time status as a PhD student. I had to. I could not turn my back on my practice oath, or my future professional goals as a nurse scientist. It is in this spirit that, on behalf of myself and my exhausted colleagues, I call on those with critical care experience who have stepped away from bedside to return, as they are able, and answer this same call to action. 

The extent of the critical care nursing shortage we are currently experiencing is alarming to me and almost beyond my comprehension. This shortage has forced critical care nurses who have been at bedside since March of last year to remain at bedside even as several of us have reached the breaking point of psychological exhaustion. Our desperate outcry for backup from our fellow critical care nurse colleagues seems to have yielded no outcome. It is obvious that addressing this shortage would require a solution with immediate implementation as we do not have time for the training of more critical care nurses. Thus, an immediate call to all nurse anesthesia students to return to bedside should be a part of any strategy geared towards quickly addressing issues of this critical care nursing shortage.

At a time when the role of critical care registered nurses is most needed, several nurse anesthesia programs continue with their regular admission cycle protocol: pulling critical care nurses away from bedside. At my current hospital, we lost nearly a dozen critical care nurse colleagues to nurse anesthesia programs between March and May of 2020 at the peak of the pandemic. Since the nurse anesthesia program requirements stipulate a minimum of one year of critical care nursing experience, all program applicants possess highly specialized clinical skills needed for the care of critically ill COVID-19 patients.  While there are unarguable reasons as to why some nurse anesthesia students have yet to answer this urgent call to duty, we as a profession, and as a society must do what we can to incentivize them to return to bedside to help relieve the suffering of patients and exhausted nurses who have fought tirelessly at the frontlines since the onset of the pandemic – many of whom have lost their lives as a result. 

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Can Pot Protect the Brain After Injury? A New Study Says It Can

Accident scene Canada

The use of marijuana is associated with a marked increase in the risk of being involved in severe trauma particularly motor vehicle collisions. In 2009, for instance, marijuana use was a contributing factor in more than 460,000 emergency department visits in the United States.

But we also know that cannabis is potentially neuroprotective. Previous studies have found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, may have beneficial effects in certain types of neurodegenerative processes, like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease. In addition, previous studies indicate THC may protect the brain in animal models of neurologic injury. However, clinical trials of a synthetic THC derivative were not ultimately associated with an increase in survival in patients with traumatic brain injury. Since overall findings were mixed, we hypothesized that use of the “native” form of THC could be associated with an increase in survival in patients with traumatic brain injury.

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What to Do About Futile Critical Care

Thanks to extraordinary advances in medicine, critical care providers can save lives even when the cards are stacked against their patients. However, there are times when no amount of care, however cutting-edge it is, will save a patient. In these instances, when physicians recognize that patients will not be rescued, further critical care is said to be “futile.” In a new study, my RAND and UCLA colleagues and I find that critical care therapies that physicians regard as “futile” are not uncommon in intensive care units, raising some uncomfortable questions.

Of course, we’re fortunate to have such fantastic technology at our disposal — but we must address how to use it appropriately when the patient may not benefit from high-intensity measures. When aggressive critical care is unsuccessful at achieving an acceptable level of health for the patient, treatment should focus on palliative care.

In our study, my colleagues and I quantified the prevalence and cost of “futile” critical care in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. This can be seen as the first step toward reevaluating the status quo and better optimizing care for critical care patients.

After convening a group of critical care clinicians to determine a consensus definition of “futile treatment,” our research team analyzed nearly 7,000 daily assessments of more than 1,000 patients.

We found that 11 percent received futile treatment, while an additional 9 percent received “probably futile” treatment.

So physician-perceived futile critical care is indeed prevalent. But what about the cost?

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Building a Better Health Care System: Electronic Health Records Could Help Identify Which Patients Most Need ICU Resources

It wasn’t until I had read this.

A national shortage of critical care physicians and beds means difficult decisions for healthcare professionals: how to determine which of the sickest patients are most in need of access to the intensive care unit. What if patients’ electronic health records could help a physician determine ICU admission by reliably calculating which patient had the highest risk of death?

Emerging health technologies – including reliable methods to rate the severity of a patient’s condition – may provide powerful tools to efficiently use scarce and costly health resources, says a team of University of Michigan Health System researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“The lack of critical care beds can be frustrating and scary when you have a patient who you think would benefit from critical care, but who can’t be accommodated quickly. Electronic health records – which provide us with rich, reliable clinical data – are untapped tools that may help us efficiently use valuable critical care resources,” says hospitalist and lead author Lena M. Chen, M.D., M.S., assistant professor in internal medicine at the University of Michigan and an investigator at the Center for Clinical Management Research(CCMR), VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System.

The UMHS and VA study referenced in the article finds that patients’ severity of illness is not always strongly associated with their likelihood of being admitted to the ICU, challenging the notion that limited and expensive critical care is reserved for the sickest patients. ICU admissions for non-cardiac patients closely reflected severity of illness (i.e., sicker patients were more likely to go to the ICU), but ICU admissions for cardiac patients did not, the study found. While the reasons for this are unclear, authors note that the ICU’s explicit role is to provide care for the sickest patients, not to respond to temporary staffing issues or unavailable recovery rooms. Continue reading…

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