Episode 47: ICU triage with Eddy Gutierrez

Discussing ICU triage, risk stratification, and patient disposition with intensivist Eddy Joe Gutierrez (@eddyjoemd) of the Saving Lives Podcast.

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Takeaway lessons

  1. When a patient has borderline indications for requiring the ICU, generally, in the real world, they should go to the ICU. More often than not, “downtriage” results in a later, inevitable, yet delayed upgrade to the ICU.
  2. Sometimes, borderline patients may need the ICU just to complete the workup and prove that they don’t need the ICU. This is annoying but inevitable; such patients can’t languish for a 12-hour evaluation in the ED no matter how much we might want them to. The ED needs to flow, and there’s no better diagnostic tool than time.
  3. A good practical rule for which pulmonary emboli require the ICU are those that will, or may, require an intervention other than systemic anticoagulation. Examples include systemic thrombolysis, catheter-directed thrombolytics, thrombectomy, etc.
  4. In theory, patients with a downward trajectory can remain outside the ICU until they reach the point where they require critical care, then can be upgraded. This can work as long as their deterioration is controlled and not precipitous, i.e. there’s time to safely recognize their status and move them to higher care when the time comes. But this is often not easy to know.
  5. The location of care can influence care in non-obvious ways. For instance, a septic patient may receive excessive harmful IV fluid boluses as providers attempt to avoid an upgrade to the ICU to administer vasopressors.
  6. Bed availability has no relation to patient disposition, other than the fact that patients forced to board outside the unit will probably, inevitably receive worse care.
  7. The readiness to transfer a patient from the ICU is usually higher than the threshold for accepting them initially. This isn’t a fallacy. It’s due to the fact that the former has had a period of observation, whereas the latter has not yet demonstrated their trajectory.
  8. When a sending provider (e.g. in the ED, floor, or an outside hospital) thinks a patient needs the ICU, and you don’t think so, they usually should win. A patient may not need the ICU, but if they can’t stay where they are, uptriage is the safety net.
  9. Ultimately, safe triage is usually a process, not a snapshot, and patients may need to move more than once. Smooth and safe transfers of care usually comes down to details and knowledge of your specific institution, and navigating it well requires good communication. Teams that can’t talk to each other inevitably lead to deficiencies in care.
  10. Making certain triage determinations by policy, committee, or guideline can help counteract the natural tendency (at least in the US) to always overtriage due to concern about personal provider risk.
  11. Try to limit your second-guessing about other people’s triage decisions made in retrospect. It’s a lot easier after the fact.

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