Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a pandemic. The United States has seen a rapid growth in infections and, at the time of writing, has the largest number of cases in the world. As of May 8, 2020, there were an estimated 1,219,000 cases and 73,000 deaths in the United States; New York City alone has reported over 181,000 cases, making it the epicenter of the disease in this country.1 Hospitals in New York City are facing an unprecedented increase in the number of patients suffering from COVID-19, which necessitates drastic adaptations.2 Internal medicine residents are skilled in hospitalist and critical care medicine and are on the front lines of this pandemic. In addition to managing the large volume of patients, hospitals and providers must address several other challenges. The illness severity of patients admitted to the hospital is high and patients can deteriorate rapidly. Early predictions from Italy (March 2020) indicate that 16% of inpatients require intensive care unit (ICU) admission due to severe hypoxemic respiratory failure.3 In our hospital system (New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Irving Medical Center), around 25% of hospitalized patients have required ICU admission. Concerns about limited supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) obligate hospitals to institute measures to conserve PPE. No-visitor policies, while thoughtfully implemented, add to the emotional burden of caring for COVID-19 patients and require new ways of communicating with patients and their surrogates. The overall physical, mental, and emotional burden of the COVID-19 pandemic poses unique challenges for the health care team.
To meet the growing needs of our patients and mitigate the potential negative impact on our clinicians, the Internal Medicine Residency Program at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Irving Medical Center implemented a significant reorganization of clinical care models and resident schedules. The goal of this article is to share the experiences and lessons we learned from this crisis, communicate the solutions we designed, and inform others who may be facing the prospect of creating similar disaster response measures.
The Existing Model
Before this pandemic, resident schedules were organized into traditional 2- or 4-week rotations. The inpatient service consisted of several teams admitting patients on a 4-day call cycle. Every team consisted of a postgraduate year 1 (PGY-1) resident paired with 1 senior resident (either PGY-2 or PGY-3) and supervised by 1 attending (a 1:1:1 ratio for PGY-1 to senior resident to attending) with a census of 10 patients. Two of these teams would round together each morning to promote a rich academic discussion, benefiting from the perspective of 2 attending physicians (often a mix of an internist and a subspecialist). Rounds emphasized bedside medicine, clinical reasoning, broad differential diagnoses, nuances of clinical management, and the practical application of evidence-based medicine.
With the start of the pandemic in New York City, it quickly became clear that the existing model was not conducive to meeting the unique challenges of COVID-19. Our hospital made the decision to suspend elective surgeries and nonemergent procedures, transition outpatient visits to telemedicine, and transform many spaces in the hospital into new medical wards and ICU-capable units for the influx of patients with COVID-19. Specific areas converted into “pop-up” ICUs include existing inpatient medical–surgical wards, operating rooms, cardiac catheterization areas, and perioperative units. These changes required a reconsideration of the existing infrastructure of our program’s schedules and rotations to incorporate flexibility and expand the ability to care for the rapidly growing number of patients. Furthermore, social distancing among providers required a redesign of existing team and rounding structures, and in-depth academic discussions at the bedside with a large team no longer seemed prudent. Our new reality demanded unprecedented efficiency and an urgent change in our teaching and care delivery models.
The New Model
We implemented extensive changes to our residency program to meet the challenges outlined above. The changes are organized in 5 domains: caring for a larger and sicker patient population, providing care safely, emotional and physical well-being, communication, and education. We review the considerations and challenges and describe our solutions in each domain. Of note, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education granted pandemic emergency status to our sponsoring institution, acknowledging that due to extraordinary circumstances “routine care education and delivery must be reconfigured to focus only on patient care.”4
Caring for a larger and sicker patient population
Inpatient volumes have been increasing rapidly and often in unpredictable bursts. A large proportion of admitted patients have high acuity of illness or experience rapid worsening with sudden respiratory decompensation. This clinical pattern has resulted in a significant increase in the number of rapid responses activated, and critically ill patients can remain on the wards while waiting for ICU beds that are in high demand. This experience early in the surge of COVID-19 patients prompted us to make several changes.
As a first step, we temporarily suspended all rotations that did not involve direct patient care or had substantially diminished patient volumes due to the changes adopted in the larger hospital care delivery model described above. Examples of such rotations include elective time, subspecialty outpatient clinics, and the resident-as-teacher rotation. These modifications allowed us to transition almost entirely to providing inpatient care on the wards and in the ICUs.
Next, we reorganized our inpatient teams, moving from a service-based model (e.g., general medicine, cardiology, oncology) to geographic cohorting such that teams are assigned to specific wards of about 30 to 38 beds each and take care of all patients on their wards with continuous admitting capability to unit capacity. This modification has facilitated rapid transfer of patients from the emergency department to any bed available in the hospital.
We have created a radically new structure for these new teams by moving away from the previous hierarchical model of PGY-1 residents being supervised by more senior residents overseen by an attending physician. Rather, in the new model, each resident (of any PGY) is supervised directly by an attending physician. Conceptually, we believe this to be a safe model given that when we made this change we were late in the academic year, and PGY-1 residents had progressed to be ready for more responsibility. Additionally, to further expand our ability to cover a growing number of hospital wards, we have increased the resident-to-attending ratios to a range of 1.5–2:1. Each resident takes care of up to 10 patients, and therefore each attending physician oversees the care of 15 to 20 patients. So, for our typical ward of 30 to 38 patients, the new teams, created by geographic cohorting, consist of 3 to 4 residents and 2 attending physicians. We strategically schedule the residents in each geographic cohort to be a mix of junior and senior residents. While the seniors do not directly supervise the juniors, they are readily available on the same ward to help if needed. Compared with our pre-COVID team structure, this new model requires half the number of resident and attending physicians to take care of the same number of patients, essentially doubling our potential capacity. More importantly, the effective capacity increase is even greater because there is continuous admitting capability, and every hospital bed can be used quickly. In the ICUs, we have been able to expand our capacity to 225% of our previous capacity by adding more residents and increasing the ratio of PGY-1 to senior resident to 2:1 from 1:1 and otherwise maintaining the preexisting provider-to-patient ratios.
We also needed to create a scheduling system that would allow us to stay within duty hours regulations, give residents appropriate time off, and maintain a small pool of residents to be available in the event that other trainees fall ill, a so-called sick-pull cohort. We have changed all rotations to a shift-based schedule with day teams working from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm and night teams from 7:00 pm to 7:00 am. As a result, all prior call schedules, including 24-hour calls in the ICUs, are suspended in favor of the new 12-hour shifts. This uniformity in schedules across rotations makes it easier for residents to transition between rotations or fill in for those residents who become unwell and have to be quarantined. We calculated the minimum number of residents required to staff all ward units and ICUs covered by our program and the additional number of residents required to enable our residents to take 25% of each rotation cycle off. For our program in particular, we required 136 residents to cover 103 unique inpatient roles if all residents spent 25% of their time either off or in the sick-pull pool. This goal, coupled with the desire to maximize the continuity of care of our patients, meant creating an 8-day cycle for all residents with 6 days spent on 1 rotation followed by 1 protected day off and 1 day in the sick-pull pool.
We have used a few physician trainees from other specialties who have been redeployed to our internal medicine program to enable us to cover incremental increases in patient care. Our Graduate Medical Education Office has been coordinating this redeployment by matching clinical needs with residents and fellows available from other programs within our institution. Residents from dermatology and radiology and fellows from pediatric gastroenterology and adolescent medicine have been integrated into our medical services. As the receiving program, we provide an orientation, including didactic material on the clinical care of patients with COVID-19 and helpful information about workflow on the medical wards. Dermatology residents have been functioning in medicine PGY-1 roles given their prior training in internal medicine during their preliminary year. Residents from radiology have been helping with communication with families who are not allowed to visit patients in person. Fellows from pediatric subspecialties have less experience caring for adult patients, and we have adjusted their patient load such that 2 fellows together assume the role of one medicine PGY-1.
Interestingly, the 12-hour shift model has decreased the average number of handoffs per patient per day since there are only 2 shifts in a 24-hour period. In the traditional model, all teams would first sign out to the long-call team who would then sign out to night float.
As outpatient volumes declined, residents were able to transition entirely to telemedicine visits for clinic patients. A few residents with specific medical conditions, such as pregnancy, have been allowed accommodations in accordance with our institution’s policy and have been doing telemedicine visits that formed the bulk of outpatient medicine at the time of this writing. Residents on mandatory quarantine but well enough to work remotely have been helping with these increased telemedicine visits including the new “fever and cough” clinic that is primarily run by the attending physicians with the goal of offloading the pressure on the emergency department. Attending physicians cover the remainder of both telemedicine and in-person visits to the clinic.
Providing care safely
The safety of our residents is a paramount concern. Our hospital mobilized quickly to provide training in the appropriate use of PPE and infection control. With evolving recommendations, prompt and effective communication is essential (see the section on communication). We continue to emphasize thoughtful use of PPE, balancing conservation strategies with appropriate patient care while adhering to infection control guidelines. For example, a single physician examines a patient unless clinical circumstances dictate otherwise. For patients who are clinically stable, either the resident or the attending physician alone goes to the bedside during daily rounds while the rest of the team can participate in this interaction via videoconferencing. On our services, the attending physician must be the one directly examining the patient no less frequently than every other day. Before going into a patient room, physicians check with the patient’s nurse to see if there are any tasks they can accomplish while in the room to potentially alleviate the need for more visits. Similarly, we batch medication and lab orders such that these can be accomplished in as few visits into the patient room as safely possible. To practice recommended social distancing, team rounds no longer occur in large groups or at the bedside. Instead, attending physicians discuss patients with individual residents in workspaces designated for rounding. Interprofessional rounds have been switched entirely to videoconferencing.
Emotional and physical well-being
Crises are inherently stressful times. As the world has already witnessed, being on the front lines of this pandemic can take a significant emotional and physical toll. While our trainees are resilient, their emotional and physical well-being is a key priority. As a result, we have designed the new structure to incorporate time off to limit fatigue and allow us to adhere to duty hours regulations.5 We have augmented our existing mental health resources, adding in process groups that meet virtually and making one-on-one sessions with mental health professionals available. We have been fortunate enough to receive an outpouring of support from our community both locally and nationally. Through generous donations, we are able to provide all meals for residents on-site (individually packaged for safety) and offer financial help toward transportation costs because several residents have shifted away from using more affordable public transport options due to social distancing considerations.
From the outset of our response to the coronavirus pandemic, active, purposeful, and clear communication with our residents has remained a priority. We strive to maintain a culture of transparency to ensure that our residents feel informed and aware of the rapidly changing environment around them.5 Communications involve a daily (including weekends) virtual meeting of the residency program led by program leadership. The meeting is scheduled for an hour, but the actual length varies daily based on the volume of content and amount of discussion. In this meeting, we provide updates from national, local, hospital, and program levels coupled with the opportunity for residents to ask questions and raise concerns. These sessions address updates in epidemiology (e.g., number of COVID-19 patients across the hospital system, number requiring invasive ventilation), availability of PPE, testing capability, and changes to residency staffing and scheduling, among other timely topics. We frequently invite specialist guests such as the hospital’s Infection Prevention and Control group as well as graduate medical education leadership to provide additional information and address questions and concerns from residents. After the initial 4 to 5 weeks, the day-to-day changes have become less frequent and, at the time of writing, these meetings occur 3 times per week.
In addition to our virtual meeting, we send out a daily programwide email at the end of the day. This email includes key takeaways from the virtual meeting as well as a synopsis of any new developments that occurred during the day. In the spirit of transparency, we provide updates on the number of residents on home quarantine every day. We include notes of appreciation about our residents that we receive from others and information about donations. The daily email includes key contact information (such as phone numbers of program leadership, the hospital’s Workforce Health and Safety clinic, Infection Prevention and Control group) and a summary of available mental health resources.
While challenging, maintaining our educational mission remains a priority. We recognize that keeping pace with the rapidly evolving knowledge of COVID-19 is essential for physicians treating patients with this disease. We have modeled a virtual educational conference using the format of one of our best interactive, case-based conferences (“morning report”). This educational session is held every weekday via videoconferencing. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, this conference focused on an aspect of the myriad complications seen in COVID-19. Over time, we have expanded the scope to include other high-yield topics in medicine. We invite expert discussants to each session, and participants have the opportunity to ask questions. We record every session and make it available for later viewing given the immediate value to ongoing patient care.
The major schedule change and fundamental shift in the way our program’s residents care for patients resulted in several other considerations we needed to address in the reorganization of our residency program. We have been able to maintain planned vacation time with only a few adjustments to the dates. Spring—the period we cover in this paper—is also when residents who intend to pursue additional subspecialty training are planning for the upcoming application cycle. The changes necessitated by the pandemic crisis, including canceled licensing exams, delays in ongoing research, and alteration of previously planned opportunities for electives in specific subspecialties have caused several residents to offset their plans. We have tried to preserve these opportunities wherever factors were within our control, such as by assigning residents to wards where their supervising attending would be from their chosen subspecialty. We have been holding question-and-answer panel sessions with fellowship program directors at our institution so our residents can directly discuss their concerns. We will include a description of the impact of the crisis response and highlight the contributions of individual residents during this time of need in our program letter of recommendation.
While these changes were implemented as an emergency response, our teams report that they like many aspects of the new structure so we are considering maintaining some changes beyond the pandemic phase. In particular, we intend to maintain geographic cohorting based on feedback from our residents about better teamwork and relationships with the interprofessional team, as well as increased efficiency. We do plan to return to the previous 1:1:1 staffing ratios of PGY-1 to senior resident to attending and the 4-day call cycle instead of 12-hour shifts. As the effects of the pandemic wane, we will continue to adjust the frequency of our programwide meetings. Before the pandemic, we held monthly town hall meetings with our residents; we plan to return to this schedule as conditions allow.
In conclusion, we describe an extraordinary reconfiguration of our residency program at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic to take care of a much larger and sicker patient population than we normally do, ensure the physical and emotional well-being of our residents, maintain clear and transparent communication, and uphold our educational mission even in a time of crisis. While our transition has been an iterative process, overcoming several challenges, we believe that our final model has allowed us to respond to the COVID-19 emergency in a manner that maintains our twin missions of caring for our patients as well as our residents. We hope that the lessons we have learned help inform other programs as they react and adapt to the spread of this crisis nationwide.
The authors wish to acknowledge the large contributions of the entire workforce at their institution. Within the Department of Medicine in particular, these changes to the residency program occurred alongside similar restructuring of other provider roles in all settings, including outpatient, the emergency department, inpatient, and critical care areas. The authors would also like to give special recognition to their residents who responded to the highest calling of the medical profession, providing exemplary patient care in the most demanding circumstances.