Upstairs vs Downstairs: an EPIC Conundrum
A new breed, and new terminology
Scott Weingart MD and colleagues have published a discussion paper  outlining the role of emergency physicians who have completed additional critical care training – ED intensivists – and the potential benefits these individuals might bring to patients, emergency departments, and their emergency physician colleagues.
The paper also introduces a glossary of new terms which might help clarify future discussion of this practice area:
Potential benefits of ED-intensivists – and associated adequately staffed areas within ED that facilitate ongoing critical care delivery – include:
Improved ED-ICU communication and shared protocols
Scott’s whole mission is about bringing ‘upstairs care downstairs’, and educating others to do that, at which he is a true master. No doubt he will singlehandedly have inspired a large cohort of emergency physicians to train in critical care. Examples of ED intensivists and their roles are listed here on the EMCrit site.
Emergency physician intensivists in the Old Country
As an ‘ED-intensivist’ myself, I do believe many of those advantages can be realised. In the UK when I originally trained in both EM and ICM there was a small number of similarly trained individuals and we collectively called ourselves ‘EPIC’ – ‘Emergency Physicians in Intensive Care’.
Our shared energy and enthusiasm led to a dedicated conference in 2011 and it’s possible that our proselytizing combined with publications like Terry Brown’s ‘Emergency physicians in critical care: a consultant’s experience‘ may have made some small contribution to the subsequent explosion in interest in dual accreditation in EM & ICM in the UK.
When I moved to Australia in 2008 I was excited to hear that emergency docs now made up the largest proportion of dual trained new intensivists. When I asked a leading member of this group whether he saw any role for an ‘EPIC’ community in Australia I was surprised and disappointed with the response:
‘Nice idea but I don’t see the point. I can’t think of anyone who dual trained who’s still working in emergency medicine’
So it seems those who were in the best position to bring upstairs care downstairs had all disappeared upstairs. Many will admit it’s not just because they find critical care more interesting than emergency medicine; the combination of a significantly higher income (through private practice) with better working conditions plays a significant role.
There are other opportunities in Australia for emergency physicians to practice critical care. Prehospital & retrieval medicine services undertake interhospital critical care transport of patients from small and often remote facilities where all of the first few hours of intensive care must be delivered by retrieval teams in often challenging environments with limited personnel and equipment. In some cases it’s these retrieval physicians who are able to fulfil the role of ED-intensivist in their own EDs.
Integrated critical care models and SuperDoctors
Another Australian example is the ‘integrated critical care’ model pioneered in some regional centres in rural New South Wales where emergency physicians with critical care training aim to provide seamless care to patients in the prehospital, ED, ICU and ward environments. I was lucky enough to do some locum shifts in one of these centres – Tamworth – where the service is delivered by some of the most highly skilled and dedicated physicians I’ve ever met. Check out their registrar job ad for a flavour of their work. This model was described in a 2003 publication by my Sydney HEMS colleague Craig Hore which lists its features as follows:
Multidisciplinary critical-care teams that provide:
A more seamless interface between the various phases of critical care and between its respective disciplines;
A rapid response to, and a continuum of care for, critically ill and injured patients;
Clinical leadership in evaluating and managing critically ill and injured patients, both in the hospital (including the emergency department, critical-care unit and hospital wards) and in the community (including retrievals, and support for ambulance crews, peripheral hospitals and general practitioners); and
Training of medical students, medical staff, nursing staff and allied health professionals to recognise and provide a systematic approach to critical illness and injury.
Team members who are empowered to work beyond perceived traditional boundaries, but within the realms of their clinical expertise and credentials, to enable the best use of available resources.
So it appears the benefits to patients, hospitals, and team skills of ED-intensivists have been espoused for some years in the Anglo-Australian setting, and different practice models evolve to best serve local need.
Resuscitating the resuscitationists
Is it time to revive EPIC? I chased up my UK buddies who co-founded it, and here are extracts from their replies (note ‘CCT’ refers to certificate of completion of training – the UK equivalent of specialist accreditation or board certification):
So it appears emergency physician intensivists are growing in number, but employment prospects in both specialties are not guaranteed. If we are to recruit them to work as ED intensivists (ie. providing critical care in the ED) we have a challenge in making such posts attractive and sustainable. Emergency medicine in the UK is suffering at the moment, and we’ll have to work hard to stop those who are dual trained from disappearing upstairs.
Your comments on this are invited. Should there be more critical care- trained EPs? Shouldn’t ALL EPs have the right critical care skills to manage the first few hours of critical care? Can you call yourself an emergency physician and not be a ‘resuscitationist’? Where do retrievalists fit into this spectrum? How do we help motivate those who are dual trained to stay in the ED for some of their time? Is there a need for a body like EPIC to guide those who are considering dual training, and to provide recommendations to employers and physicians on models of care and job planning? I would love to get more of an international perspective on this issue.
There is a growing interest in the interface between emergency medicine and critical care medicine. Previous articles in this journal have looked at the opportunities and advantages of training in critical care medicine for emergency medicine trainees. In the UK there are a small number of emergency physicians who also have a commitment to critical care medicine. This article describes a personal experience of such a job, looking at the advantages and disadvantages. Depending upon future developments in the role of emergency medicine in the UK, together with the proposed expansion in critical care medicine, such posts may become more common.
3. Integrated critical care: an approach to specialist cover for critical care in the rural setting
Med J Aust. 2003 Jul 21;179(2):95-7
Critical care encompasses elements of emergency medicine, anaesthesia, intensive care, acute internal medicine, postsurgical care, trauma management, and retrieval. In metropolitan teaching hospitals these elements are often distinct, with individual specialists providing discrete services. This may not be possible in rural centres, where specialist numbers are smaller and recruitment and retention more difficult. Multidisciplinary integrated critical care, using existing resources, has developed in some rural centres as a more relevant approach in this setting. The concept of developing a specialty of integrated critical-care medicine is worthy of further exploration.