Critical Care Bed Counts Aren't Standard Across U.S. During Coronavirus Pandemic An NPR analysis of the nation's 100,000 ICU beds finds some communities can accommodate far more critically ill patients than others, signaling potential disparities in care in the COVID-19 pandemic.
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ICU Bed Capacity Varies Widely Nationwide

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ICU Bed Capacity Varies Widely Nationwide

ICU Bed Capacity Varies Widely Nationwide

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Intensive care units have become crucial during the coronavirus pandemic because ICUs are where patients who need ventilators are treated. As NPR's Robert Benincasa reports, ICU capabilities vary from hospital to hospital, and some parts of the country have many more beds by population than others.

ROBERT BENINCASA, BYLINE: An NPR analysis of data from the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice looked at how the country's nearly 100,000 ICU beds are distributed. The analysis spanned the nation's 300 regional hospital markets. In some areas, like several in Florida, there are more than 60 intensive care beds for every 100,000 residents. In others, such as Las Vegas and Nashville, there are fewer than 20. A recent report from the Society of Critical Care Medicine found that more than 9 out of 10 intensive care beds nationally are in metropolitan areas. Only 1% are in rural areas.

ERIC TONER: The pandemic will look quite different in different places (ph).

BENINCASA: Eric Toner is a physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

TONER: Some places will maybe be able to get by without having to ration critical care. Other places definitely will not be able to get by.

BENINCASA: Craig Coopersmith, who leads the Emory Critical Care Center in Atlanta, says there's no benchmark for the optimal number of ICU beds. Individual hospitals determine what they can offer and what their local markets demand, and the prospect of a pandemic isn't the main driver.

CRAIG COOPERSMITH: One can't develop a health care system solely for times a pandemic because if they did, the vast majority of times, one's ICU beds would be empty.

BENINCASA: David Wallace, a researcher and critical care doctor at the University of Pittsburgh, found that larger hospitals teaching hospitals and those whose ICUs were at high occupancy have been more likely to add ICU beds in the past. Those and other factors will matter when it comes to dealing with the pandemic. But, he says, even his own research counting ICU beds is an oversimplification.

DAVID WALLACE: While I may be able to count the number of beds in region A and region B and the underlying populations in those two areas, what those beds and what those ICUs are actually able to provide is an entirely different question.

BENINCASA: Toner says the pandemic may demonstrate that a market-based approach to allocating hospital resources doesn't work, and he advocated shifting some responsibility to taxpayers.

TONER: We need to fund hospitals in locations that can't support themselves on their own because it's in the national interest to have hospitals and critical care capacity in places that are not profitable.

BENINCASA: For now, though, critical care doctors say hospitals will cope with an influx of COVID-19 patients by repurposing some facilities, shifting staff and moving patients between hospitals as long as that remains possible.

Robert Benincasa, NPR News.

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