Physician viewpoint: US must shift mindset, use tech to avoid ventilator shortage during the coronavirus pandemic

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the country, the U.S. will need to immediately solve three key issues to avoid a massive ventilator shortage: ventilator production, distribution and operation, according to Daniel Horn, MD. 

In a March 22 op-ed for The New York Times, Dr. Horn, a primary care physician at Boston-based Massachusetts General Hospital, addressed the impending crisis America faces due to an insufficient number of ventilators that will soon be needed for COVID-19 patients. Dr. Horn cited a Feb. 28 New England Journal of Medicine study of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, where 5 percent of patients required the intensive care unit and 2.3 percent needed a ventilator. 

“Now imagine 2.3 percent of the perhaps millions of Americans who are expected to become infected with COVID-19 over the next three months,” Dr. Horn wrote. “There simply will not be enough of these machines, especially in major cities. Hospitals in the country have some 160,000 total; New York has 6,000 at most.” 

To solve the ventilator crisis, Dr. Horn wrote that the U.S. must implement the following three measures:

1. Embrace a “do whatever is necessary” mindset. Clinicians have already begun taking on this mindset when approaching the coronavirus pandemic, deviating from their typical job descriptions and instead doing whatever they are “best suited to do.” Other industries are following, with companies such as General Motors working with ventilator developer Ventec Life Systems to speed up production of critical respiratory products. Dr. Horn wrote that his colleagues at some of the top U.S. hospitals are being approached by tech leaders asking for ventilator specifications. 

2. Big tech needs to support ventilator distribution. Once ventilator production is rapidly scaled, big tech must enter the situation by developing a cloud-based national surveillance platform. The tech must be able to track individual hospital ICU capacity and ventilator supply across the country in real time. 

3. Start planning for ventilator operation. Hospitals and health systems must start training other caregivers and other professionals on the basics of deploying ventilator equipment as respiratory therapists, ICU nurses, critical care physicians and anesthesiologists will likely be in short supply.

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