Dr Tariq Cheema Discusses Patient, Family Experiences With Virtual ICU Care


Tariq Cheema, MD, division chair of pulmonary critical care sleep and allergy medicine at Allegheny Health Network (AHN), discusses how the virtual ICU (vICU) program has benefited patients and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of both patient care and managing resources.

Having the virtual ICU (vICU) program available at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic was a godsend to our physicians and patients, says Tariq Cheema, MD, division chair of pulmonary critical care sleep and allergy medicine at Allegheny Health Network (AHN).


What feedback have you received from patients and their families regarding their experiences with the vICU program?

Patients and families are surprisingly very receptive of this, because the way the system works, you press the button on the screen, and a physician pops up immediately. So, we've had feedback where they're have been difficult discussions happening in the middle of the night, end-of-life discussions about patients who are critically ill, and the patient's family member can talk to the physician directly in the room and have those conversations, which otherwise, they would have to wait till the next day when the physician comes in on rounds or when they come into the hospital. So, to have that access has been very beneficial to the patients.

Then, to be able to keep the patient in the local hospital in the local community, without moving them down to Pittsburgh is always something that patients and their families love. Because it's easy to move a patient, but you have to think about the family member who also has to move down to Pittsburgh and find a place to stay. So, it's more convenient for the family members if the care can be provided in their local community and local hospitals.

Can you share any insights on how the vICU program has been particularly valuable during times of increased demand, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, in terms of both patient care and managing resources effectively?

This program was actually a godsend during COVID. When we were in the in the middle of COVID there were significant staff shortages. We had physicians who were also out with COVID, and the volume in the ICU was significantly higher than it usually is.

We were able to use this virtual ICU program to help cover the ICUs where we didn't have enough physicians, not only from a physician standpoint, but from nurses as well. So, they were able to monitor and manage patients remotely. Even during the day when you had a physician on the ground, but if they were overwhelmed, they could always rely on the virtual ICU physician to be as a backup. So that was a significant part of, of the effort to tackle COVID. And we were really grateful to have that program up and running when COVID started.

In some of our facilities, we were able to deploy something called a care agility tablet, which is a mobile device which can be moved from one room to the other, and basically provide the virtual tele-ICU services. We were able to expand our ICUs into step-down units and be able to take care of additional critical care patients by doing that. So, like I said, it was extremely beneficial to have that available to us at the time.

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