Over Half Of U.S. States Running Out Of ICU Doctors As Cases Surge

A significant number of states battling new surges in COVID-19 cases are devastatingly short on doctors who work in intensive care units.
Posted at 3:42 PM, Aug 07, 2020

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, many states have faced critical shortages of ventilators, hospital beds and personal protective gear.

Now, amid a new surge in cases, shortages of key medical equipment aren't the only challenge facing the nation's health care industry. There's also a shortage of ICU staff.

"When people think about the surge in cases, they think of hospitalizations, maybe beds and deaths, but they're not thinking about whether there's sufficient staff to be able to care for the patients that we have," said Dr. Patricia Pittman, director of the Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity at the George Washington University.

Three states seeing an influx of cases are short on doctors, and 23 others are strained. That's according to researchers at the George Washington University, led by Dr. Patricia Pittman.

The team built a "state hospital workforce estimator" to help states analyze demand for health care workers in relation to the number of coronavirus cases.

"It's easy to set up new beds as we saw in New York in Central Park but it's not easy to train and wrap these professionals. You actually have to have policies in place in anticipation to be able to get them to where they need to be," explained Pittman.

Pittman hopes the tool, monitored weekly, will help state policymakers plan for spikes in cases and potential shortfalls of ICU staff.

To meet demand for coronavirus care, hospitals in high-need states can shift to plans that expand capacity; deploy and recruit health workers from states with less demand; recruit retirees back into practice on a temporary basis; and transition final-year medical students into practice.

States, meanwhile, can temporarily ease licensing and telemedicine requirements.

"The virus is not affecting states sort of in an equal way at the same time, and so in some way that's advantageous because you can move those resources across states according to need," said Pittman.

Pittman says the pandemic has shed light on many inequalities and also the need for more data.

"States could do a better job, the government can do a better job, working with states to help them have a robust data set so that when these things happen, we can not only anticipate the demand but also anticipate what's happening in terms of the supply of health care workers — because there is no health care without health care workers," said Pittman.