It's a scene played out in hospitals all over the United States -- a patient outside the intensive care unit begins to deteriorate and a highly trained rapid response team swings into action to perform a rescue.
It's the stuff of a television drama, and such teams -- widely used across the country -- "do save human lives," according to Eugene Litvak of the Institute for Healthcare Optimization in Newton, Mass.
But Litvak and colleague Dr. Peter Pronovost of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore argue in the Sept. 22/29 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that they are a Band-Aid solution, needed only because hospital beds are poorly managed in the first place.
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In fact, Litvak told MedPage Today, rapid response teams could save even more lives -- all hospitals would have to do is "throw patients in the parking lot, instead of providing a bed, and send the rapid response team."
"We would save even more lives because we would endanger more lives in the first place," he said.
In a commentary article in the journal, Litvak and Pronovost argue that the issue of rapid response teams is often debated but the central -- and often forgotten -- question should be: "Why are RRTs [rapid response teams] needed in the first place?"
But some physicians argue, when used properly, rapid response teams are very effective and can help keep patients out of intensive care units.
"They are not used as a replacement for intensive care. In many cases the RRT [rapid response team] is able to intervene on the floor care unit and avoid having to transfer a patient to intensive care," said Dr. M. Michael Shabot, chief medical officer at Memorial Hermann Healthcare System in Houston, Texas.
"In some of our largest hospitals we have months without a single floor care cardiac arrest and that can be fully attributed to [rapid response teams]. This is routine in our smaller hospitals."
Dr. Donald Goldmann, senior vice president of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School in Boston, said such approaches are crucial.
"If the intensive care unit is full, the hospital should have a system in place to unclog it," Goldmann said. "If a patient in need of intensive care came into the emergency department and, because the system was clogged, got sent to a routine ward and 'went south,' that's not a good thing. Every patient who has signs suggesting that they could get in trouble should be sent somewhere where they can get the appropriate care."
The basic problem, the researchers argue, is periodic overcrowding, despite an average bed occupancy rate of about 66 percent. That periodic crowding increases stress on nurses and other care-givers and often makes it impossible to assign a patient an appropriate bed with an appropriate level of care.
As a result, some patients deteriorate suddenly and require the rapid response team, they argue.
"The cause is variability in patient flow," Litvak said -- as much as a 30 percent swing from one day to the next.
And the chief cause of the variability is not -- as most people would expect -- the ups and downs of accidents and sudden illnesses causing the emergency department to stagger under an unexpected load, he said.
Instead, the main cause of the unpredictability is elective surgery.