By SHERMAN SMITH
TOPEKA — Richard Watson says the latest surge in COVID-19 infections has stressed Kansas hospital capacity to new extremes, nearing the point where doctors have “brutal conversations” about which patients they take care of.
Watson’s company makes the Mission Control software Kansas hospitals use to find available bed space for acute care patients. He said discussions are quietly happening “at a state level” about the potential need to ration medical care.
Unvaccinated residents forced hospitals into this situation, and the consequences affect everybody. As Watson puts it, “all these choices that we make — they have a cost.”
“To think that if you’re fully vaccinated, and you’ve done all the things of recommendations, and yet you go to the hospital with a non-COVID condition, that your life may be in jeopardy because of what’s gone on in the public square — I just think that’s a sad day for us. And I really hope that people are starting to understand how significant the moment is,” Watson said.
The highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 has infected more than a thousand Kansans per day for the past two months. Between Sept. 1 and Sept. 8, the virus killed 112 Kansans, hospitalized 253 and infected 10,679. Just 58.4% of Kansans 12 and older are fully vaccinated.
Watson said he hopes data from his software can help influence decisions to get a free, safe and effective vaccine.
Mission Control provides real-time information on available bed space, patient conditions, and available transportation among medical care providers. The number of people who need beds right now, and the length of time it takes to get beds, is “by far worse” than the surge in January, Watson said.
Watson’s 30 years of medical experience shape his perspective. He thinks about the three-bed emergency room in McPherson when he first started in medical practice there. Flu season would overwhelm the facility. Patients lined the halls while staff faced difficult choices about whom to treat, knowing there was no right answer.
“You’re always trying to save everybody, honestly. You’re really trying not to say no to any one person,” Watson said. “And it gets hard. I mean, I’ll say that you’re jaded sometimes about the differences and the motivations of care, but at the same time, that’s one place where everybody’s on an equal playing field. You’ve just got a human being who’s needing health care. And that’s where it gets real simple at that point. Do everything you can.”
Watson co-founded Motient, the company that developed Mission Control, with Martin Sellberg. Both are physicians with degrees from the University of Kansas School of Medicine. Both have experience in emergency rooms. The idea for Mission Control predates the pandemic, and is based on a standardized index for determining the level of care a patient needs.
The program is designed to take less than a minute for someone to enter all of the pertinent information needed to move a patient from one hospital to another. The company’s communications team then works with other hospitals to find available space, based on Mission Control data, logistics, and reports from local staff with eyes on beds.
Cindy Samuelson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Hospital Association, said Mission Control has been helpful to many rural hospitals, where staffing beds is a challenge. The program relieves nursing staff from the time-consuming task of calling referral centers to locate a critical bed, she said.
“Some hospitals have spent hours calling dozens of hospitals trying to transfer acutely ill patients,” Samuelson said. “Mission Control staff take this burden off the hospital staff, allowing health care professionals to focus on providing patient care.”
KDHE awarded a $1.3 million, one-year grant to Motient in November to deploy the software into about 85 hospitals in Kansas. The software also monitors about 50 other facilities across the Midwest, including medical providers on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metro area and in Nebraska, where patients from Kansas are frequently transported. Watson said the company is in talks with several other states to expand the use of the software.
Jesse Thomas, chief product owner at Motient, said the software allows anyone at a hospital or KDHE to log into the system and look at the number of patients in critical condition, where patients are being transferred, how they are being transferred and how long it takes them to get there.
“We provide this really rich set of analytics back to each hospital, so they can understand the utilization of where are they sending patients, to what types of beds, what resources are being deployed, how are they managing which patients stay and go. Are we putting really sick people on the fastest method?” Thomas said.
The data from August is alarming, with more hospitals reaching limited or no capacity. The impact of gatherings over the three-day holiday weekend will unfold over the next two weeks. Watson said the state is probably a month away from seeing solid improvements — depending on the severity of the upcoming flu season.
One of the reasons bed space is harder to find now than during previous surges: Hospitals are unwilling to stop elective procedures like they did before.
“In reality, there’s no procedure that people just go into because they want to have a procedure done,” Watson said. “There’s almost always a reason they’re having something done. And so to delay that did have a cost.
“It also sent a message to a lot of people to say, don’t come to the ER, no matter how sick you are. And so we saw a lot more people who were having heart attacks and strokes and other conditions that normally would have come to the ER before things got bad being brought in by ambulance, very critical, and very much near or at the end.”