State ICU call center could ease rural health care gap, Yukon-Kuskokwim health officials say

When a critical care patient arrives in the Bethel hospital, an attending physician can spend hours reaching out to other hospitals in the state to secure an ICU bed. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation is urging the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to change how hospitals connect patients to intensive care beds across Alaska.

YKHC wants the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to implement a call center that would help them transfer critical care patients to ICU beds across the state. The organization said that this would help ease the burden on rural hospitals during the pandemic.

YKHC does not have its own intensive care unit, so it depends on transferring critically ill or injured patients to hospitals around the state. But the recent surge in COVID-19 cases means that most ICU departments are at or near capacity. There aren’t enough beds for new patients.

When a critical care patient arrives in the Bethel hospital, an attending physician reaches out to other hospitals in the state to secure an ICU bed. YKHC Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges said that this process can take hours and is getting longer as beds become more scarce.

On Sept. 2, Hodges spoke to state leaders about a YKHC physician trying to find an ICU bed for a critically ill patient the weekend prior. The patient did not have COVID-19.

“My physician had to reach out to each and every hospital in Alaska to ask if they had an ICU bed for this person. All the while, the physician had to provide ongoing medical care at the bedside of this desperately ill person who was deteriorating as precious time was being spent securing an ICU bed,” Hodges said.

They couldn’t find a bed for the patient, but the patient recovered. Hodges said that a centralized call center would avoid that situation. It would mean that ER doctors would only have to make one call, and the person in the call center would organize the transfer details. The call center would help solve another problem as well: the issue of getting rural patients the same level of care as urban patients.

Hodges said that YKHC is calling for a round-robin-like system where hospitals with ICU departments would have to take turns accepting patients. She said that would make care more equitable for rural patients who don’t have the same access to advanced care as urban patients.

 “It’s not fair, if you live in Anchorage, that you should be able to get an ICU bed without a problem. I think some type of a coordination at a statewide level is needed to make it safe and fair for everyone. I think rural Alaska gets overlooked,” Hodges said.

Hodges said that she and YKHC officials have been in contact with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, and she hopes that they will agree to implement the transfer system. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Hodges said that the best way the public can avoid overburdening the health care system is to get vaccinated and wear a mask.

YKHC has been calling on the state to implement a variety of measures, including urging the governor to mandate masks and vaccines for state employees, and to use stronger language that better encourages vaccines for all Alaska residents age 12 and older.

KYUK - Bethel

KYUK is our partner station in Bethel. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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