10 Apr 2020

Taranaki doctors being taught how to put ventilators on Covid-19 patients

2:59 pm on 10 April 2020

More than 80 Taranaki doctors have signed up for a crash course in a skill they hope they will never have to use - how to put a Covid-19 patient on a ventilator.

Ventilator Hutt Hospital ICU

A ventilator set up at the Intensive Care Unit at Hutt Hospital. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Taranaki Base Hospital's intensive care head of department, Dr Jonathan Albrett, says staff from across all disciplines had volunteered for the basic ICU skills training.

Dr Albrett says the one-day course was designed to prepare the hospital for a worst case scenario.

"The theory being that if we were suddenly overwhelmed with cases then doctors could come in and look after patients one on one.

"That's certainly what's been happening in Italy, France, the UK and in America."

Dr Albrett said so far 45 doctors have done the one-day course designed by Hawkes Bay ICU specialist Dr Ross Freebairn and it was hoped eventually 100 senior doctors, registrars and 60 nurses would complete the training.

He said the volunteers were learning core skills required to treating Covid-19 patients.

"Well first they need to be able to assess a patient with a life-threatening breathing disorder and make a quick assessment and start some therapies that will hopefully keep those patients off mechanical ventilation.

"So we've been teaching them how to use non-invasive ventilation which we are seeing used overseas and in the worst case scenario should the need to how to operate the ventilator and how to troubleshoot if the patient is having breathing difficulties on the ventilator."

*See all RNZ coverage of Covid-19

Dr Albrett said these were not straightforward skills to pick up.

"It's incredibly challenging for them to learn because intensive care training is a six or seven year post-graduate training qualification for doctors, so we are literally training them in some very basic concepts.

"How the machines work, what a default mode ventilation would be, what it means when the alarms go off and how to identify if there's an issue."

Taranaki has had 14 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and only one patient required hospital treatment.

Dr Albrett said as things stood he was hopeful the hospital would not have to use the backup recruits.

"But I think when we saw the stories overseas we decided as a hospital we needed to do some just in case training of staff.

"It's really great to see how many people are prepared to step well outside their comfort zone into an area of medicine they don't have expertise in. Particularly with highly infectious patients where there is some risk to their own health as well.

"For our intensive care staff it was really important to know over 80 doctors had volunteered to do this training and help them out if we need them in an emergency."

Dr Albrett said Taranaki was now in a good position to respond should the Covid-19 crisis worsen in the province.

"I feel like we are a lot more prepared than we were a month ago, but it's hard to be prepared for the worst-case scenario which I don't think anyone's prepared for.

"But we're prepared for a moderate outbreak of Covid-19 in Taranaki."

Dr Albrett said the main challenge was setting up controlled areas in the hospital.

"Which are negative pressure so that if the virus gets into the air in that room it's extracted from the hospital via a viral filter, so we have 17 negative beds now and two negative pressure operating theatres and it's great for staff to know we can put Covid-19 patients into these spaces and keep other patients and staff safe."

Read more about the Covid-19 coronavirus:

Dr Albrett said the hospital had built 12 negative pressure spaces since the Covid-19 crisis had begun.

"Some of these beds are in a ward environment or in the emergency department, but seven of these beds are in the intensive care unit so should we have an outbreak with four, five or six patients presenting and needing intensive care we can manage them safely."

Nurse Manager Cameron Grant-Fargie, who was leading the facilities upgrade, said the ICU had also been transformed so that there was a clear pathway and areas for Covid-19 patients to be cared for safely.

"Multiple negative pressure rooms have sprung up over night in our ICU. There are new walls and spaces that have been painted and look as if they have been there forever," Grant-Fargie said.

"Ward 4A has also been set up as a negative pressure unit, if required."

Taranaki District Health Board chief executive Rosemary Clements said all the work that had been done and the appetite for training sent a clear message that Taranaki's hospital facilities and staff were prepared for Covid-19.

"It's important that our community knows about all of the work being done behind the scenes to make sure that we are in the best possible position to get everyone through Covid-19 and this challenging time."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs