Electronic intensive care units being used to expand number of hospital beds

Hospitals are using technology and telemedicine to address concerns about ICU bed availability, with the pandemic's latest spike in COVID-19 patients needing critical care.

So-called e-ICU or electronic intensive care units have been around for more than a decade and now, they're being used to expand the number of critical care beds in case of a COVID-19 surge.

"The pandemic has been a catalyst to change for how we use telemedicine, or telehealth," said Dr. Thomas Shaughnessy, the medical director for the Sutter Bay Area eICU in San Francisco.

"There's about 50 e-ICU programs throughout the country," said Dr. Shaughnessy, "I think that the innovations that we've developed here during the pandemic, many of those are going to become the new norm. It's going to be the new mainstay in how we practice medicine."

At Sutter Lakeside Hospital, one patient with COVID-19 Michael Icay was admitted to an ICU bed on Tuesday. Icay is one of the growing number of COVID patients nationwide needing ICU care.

"I have two nurses, they've been with me the whole time. Sara and Jen," said Icay.

Part of the ICU team, though, is miles away monitoring his vital signs around the clock from Sutter's e-ICU center in San Francisco.

The e-ICU consists of an office with desks spread out to provide social distancing. Critical care doctors and nurses sit at stations with computer screens allowing them to communicate with ICU patients and bedside health care providers across Sutter Health's network of 20 hospitals.

Shaunessy says the team in San Francisco has already helped treat some 800 COVID-19 patients in ICU's.

The technology also is helping hospitals expand ICU care capacity. Sutter Health has been able to expand their 400 ICU beds to 1,000 ICU beds with the help of the e-ICU center, in preparation of any COVID-19 hospitalization surges.

The system also allows patients to stay in smaller hospitals near their home, instead of being transferred to large hospitals far away.

"With the use of e-ICU we are able to keep patients like him in ICU in our facility and treat him," said Najia Sadiq, a Sutter Lakeside Hospital nurse caring for Icay.

"What it's done is it's shown us that we can provide the same level of care in small rural hospitals that we can, and we can to larger ones," said Dr. Shaughnessy.

Also helpful in the pandemic, is the ability to conduct consultations with specialists, without using precious resources such as masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment.

The telemedicine cameras and tablets have another benefit too, giving COVID-19 patients who are in isolation a way to connect with their loved ones through video calls.

"It means a lot because we're all isolated here for good reason, but the daily contact helps," said Icay.

Shaughnessy says about 15% of the critical care beds in the U.S. are managed by telemedicine.