Public Release:  New disaster preparedness strategy announced

New disaster proposal could legally protect physicians

American College of Chest Physicians

In an unprecedented initiative, US and Canadian experts have developed a comprehensive framework to optimize and manage critical care resources during times of pandemic outbreaks or other mass critical care disasters. The new proposal suggests legally protecting clinicians who follow accepted protocols for the allocation of scarce resources when providing care during mass critical care events. The framework represents a major step forward to uniformly deliver sufficient critical care during catastrophes and maximize the number of victims who have access to potential life-saving interventions.

"Most countries, including the United States, have insufficient critical care resources to provide timely, usual care for a surge of critically ill and injured victims," said Asha Devereaux, MD, FCCP, Task Force for Mass Critical Care. "If a mass casualty critical care event occurred tomorrow, many people with clinical conditions that are survivable under usual health-care system circumstances may have to forgo life-sustaining interventions due to deficiencies in supply, staffing, or space." As a result, the Task Force for Mass Critical Care developed an emergency mass critical care (EMCC) framework for hospitals and public health authorities aimed to maximize effective critical care surge capacity.

Published as a supplement to the May issue of CHEST, the peer-reviewed journal of the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP), Definitive Care for the Critically Ill During a Disaster offers guidance for hospitals, medical professionals, and public health authorities on how to prepare for and provide essential critical care when the need for critical care resources far exceeds availability.

Expanding Critical Care Resources for a Disaster

To prepare for a mass critical care event, the task force proposes that hospitals with ICUs aim to meet several standards, including the ability to provide sufficient critical care for at least triple their usual ICU capacity and sustain this surge for up to 10 days without external assistance. Suggested surge capacity requirements include stockpiling medical equipment, including mechanical ventilators; optimizing medication; designating auxiliary critical care areas; and augmenting critical care staff.

Trigger Event and Process

Prior to the rationing of critical care resources, hospitals and surrounding areas must first experience a "trigger" event that includes a declared state of emergency and lack of critical equipment or infrastructure. The decision to initiate EMCC must occur in conjunction with local and regional Medical Emergency Operations Command authority and not by individual hospitals.

Critical Care Resource Allocation

The task force advises rationing scarce critical care resources only after surge capacity has been exceeded and all attempts to use outside resources have been made. Under these circumstances, the task force proposes a formal EMCC triage and resource allocation protocol. Examples of the protocol include:

  • The hospital triage officer/team will assess and prioritize all patients for receipt of scarce interventions using objective medical criteria.

  • Palliative care for all patients will be a priority. However, patients will be ineligible for scarce critical care interventions if they have extreme organ failure and/or severe chronic illness with a short life expectancy.

  • Critical care resources will not be preferentially distributed to any specific population group.

  • Decisions regarding resource allocation will be documented, remain transparent, occur uniformly across all affected regions, and subject to rigorous quality assurance.

"Ideally, having an emergency mass critical care plan in place would prevent hospitals from needing to ration critical care resources," said Lewis Rubinson, MD, PhD, Task Force for Mass Critical Care. "However, if the surge capacity is exceeded, the use of emergency mass critical care triage and rationing will help local health-care facilities minimize mortality and optimize survival."

Physician Liability

EMCC protocol allows the triage officer and supporting triage team to make decisions that benefit the greatest number of patients with potentially limited resources. Consequently, lifesaving care may be withheld from one patient and given to another, prompting ethical and legal implications. To reassure critical care providers and ensure consistent allocation of critical care resources, the task force advocates for legal protection of health-care professionals and institutions that follow accepted EMCC protocols while providing care during times that require critical care resource rationing. Government endorsement of a protocol for EMCC triage and resource allocation ideally would shield practitioners and institutions acting in good faith from liability.

"The new EMCC framework provides a much needed foundation for disaster preparedness in the critical care setting. Suggestions proposed by the task force will facilitate ongoing discussions and allow for further input from the disaster planning community," said Alvin V. Thomas, Jr., MD, FCCP, President of the ACCP. "Hospitals, communities, and government agencies must take the next steps to modify framework principles and implement them in critical care environments."

Task Force for Mass Critical Care

Spearheaded by the ACCP, the task force consists of 37 senior-level participants with broad expertise relevant to EMCC, representing military medicine, medical societies and institutions, and government agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Department of Health and Human Services. The task force also includes members of the Critical Care Collaborative (CCC), a group of medical professional societies who collectively represent more than 100,000 health-care professionals. Members of the CCC include the ACCP, the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, Society of Hospital Medicine, and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

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For more information about the EMCC supplement or to download a complimentary copy, please visit www.chestjournal.org.

ACCP represents 17,000 members who provide patient care in the areas of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine in the United States and throughout the world. The ACCP's mission is to promote the prevention and treatment of diseases of the chest through leadership, education, research, and communication. For more information about the ACCP, please visit the ACCP Web site at www.chestnet.org.

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