The ventilator is not therapeutic. It's a supportive measure while waiting for the patient's body to recover. In this photo, a doctor explains about a mechanical ventilator after a drill to test their system capabilities for the COVID-19 coronavirus mass patients influx at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, on April 9, 2020. (Photo | AFP)
New York: As health officials around the world push to get more ventilators to treat coronavirus patients, some doctors are moving away from using the breathing machines when they can.
The reason: Some hospitals have reported unusually high death rates for coronavirus patients on ventilators, and some doctors worry that the machines could be harming certain patients.
Doctors are still learning the best way to manage a virus that emerged only months ago. They are relying on anecdotal, real-time data amid a crush of patients and shortages of basic supplies.
Mechanical ventilators push oxygen into patients whose lungs are failing. Using the machines involves sedating a patient and sticking a tube into the throat. Deaths in such sick patients are common, no matter the reason they need the breathing help.
High rate of death
Generally speaking, 40% to 50% of patients with severe respiratory distress die while on ventilators, experts say. But 80% or more of coronavirus patients placed on the machines in New York City have died, state and city officials say.
Similar reports have emerged from China and the United Kingdom. One U.K. report put the figure at 66%. A very small study in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the disease first emerged, said 86% died.
The patients may have become too sick by the time they were put on the machines, some experts said.
But ventilators can be damaging to a patient over time, as high-pressure oxygen is forced into the tiny air sacs in a patient's lungs, they said.
Could cause injury
"One of the most important findings in the last few decades is that medical ventilation can worsen lung injury _ so we have to be careful how we use it," Dr. Eddy Fan, an expert on respiratory treatment at Toronto General Hospital.
The dangers can be eased by limiting the amount of pressure and the size of breaths delivered by the machine, Fan said.
Now last resort, other methods tried first
A few weeks ago in New York City, coronavirus patients who came in quite sick were routinely placed on ventilators, said Dr. Joseph Habboushe, an emergency medicine doctor who works in Manhattan hospitals.
But increasingly, physicians are trying other measures first. One is having patients lie in different positions _ including on their stomachs _ to allow different parts of the lung to aerate better. Another is giving patients more oxygen through nose tubes or other devices. Some doctors are experimenting with adding nitric oxide to the mix, to help improve blood flow and oxygen to the least damaged parts of the lungs.
"If we're able to make them better without intubating them, they are more likely to have a better outcome _ we think,'' Habboushe said.
He said those decisions are separate from worries that there are not enough ventilators available. But that is a concern as well, Habboushe added.
Long periods of ventilator use
Experts say that patients with bacterial pneumonia, for example, may be on a ventilator for no more than a day or two. But it's been common for coronavirus patients to have been on a ventilator "seven days, 10 days, 15 days, and they're passing away,'' said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, when asked about ventilator death rates during a news briefing on Wednesday.
"The ventilator is not therapeutic. It's a supportive measure while we wait for the patient's body to recover," said Dr. Roger Alvarez, a lung specialist with the University of Miami Health System in Florida, who is a leader in the effort to use nitric oxide to keep patients off ventilators for as long as possible.