Doctors call for hospital bed tracking system | News
BOSTON — As hospitals battle a record rise in COVID-19 infections, doctors are urging the state to create a system to track empty beds in emergency rooms to alleviate capacity issues.
Hospitalizations have skyrocketed in recent weeks amid a steady rise in infections among the unvaccinated, fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant.
Acute care hospitals are also seeing higher than normal levels of people seeking treatment for flu and other infectious diseases, as they struggle to provide patient care amid chronic staff shortages.
“This push is different,” said Dr. Eric Dickson, president and CEO of UMass Memorial Healthcare and chairman of the board of the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association. “As scary as things may have been for suppliers at the start of COVID, things are much worse now.”
ER doctors said efforts to deal with the flood of people seeking care for COVID and other conditions have been complicated by the lack of a tracking system to determine the number of critical care beds available.
“Right now, there is no system to track where empty beds are in the state,” said Dr. Phillip L. Rice, chair of emergency medicine at Salem Hospital in Washington. Salem, who proposed creating a national database of available beds. “It’s something the state should have done a long time ago but didn’t.”
Certainly, acute care hospitals routinely report to the state Department of Public Health the number of patients they have in their emergency rooms.
But there is no real-time, statewide tracking system for medical directors to see how many critical care beds are available at other hospitals on any given day.
“When we run out of space, I have to call MassGeneral and other hospitals to find empty beds,” Rice said. “That’s not the way to do it.”
He said New York City implemented an intensive care tracking system at the height of the pandemic, requiring hospitals to provide the number of beds available to the city.
But Rice acknowledges that some hospitals might be reluctant to “give up their autonomy” by handing over data on the number of inpatient beds to the state.
“There’s really only one force that can do this, and that’s the governor,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s on his radar, but it’s the way to go.”
There are federal tracking systems, but they have been criticized for providing inaccurate data on the number of beds available in each state.
The US Department of Health and Human Services collects inpatient data at the state level through the HHS Protect program and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, but reports have shown that the data provided by the two initiatives is often contradictory.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention review found that 14 states have COVID-19 hospital patient counts that are consistently lower than HHS Protect, while 27 state counts are higher and lower than the federal tracking system.
Like most states, Massachusetts has seen a surge in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations that have pushed the healthcare system to the brink.
As of Thursday, the state reported 18,721 new COVID-19 infections and 36 virus-related deaths.
More than 3,100 patients were hospitalized Thursday, including 484 treated in intensive care units, according to the state agency.
Governor Charlie Baker has taken a number of steps in recent weeks to help ease hospital capacity issues, issuing orders requiring acute care facilities to postpone elective surgeries and reducing elective visits .
The hospital association on Friday issued a stern warning that acute care facilities are ‘in crisis’ and urging the public to get vaccinated, take personal precautions and avoid emergency rooms for routine tests or symptoms mild from COVID-19.
Patricia Noga, MHA’s vice president of clinical affairs, said hospitals are trying to manage the crisis amid capacity issues that are “like we’ve never seen before.”
“This has made it even more difficult to transfer patients to other facilities, as everyone is now pressed for beds at the same time,” she said. “We are working around the clock, and in partnership with the state, to help hospitals balance the load and facilitate patient transfers as soon as suitable beds become available.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group newspapers and websites. Email him at [email protected]