• Devon trust recruits vets for “respiratory assistant” roles in covid-19 response
  • Managers envisage 10-fold increase in intensive care patients 
  • “Fantastic” response from veterinary community
  • Hampshire trust to use vets and dentists on critical care wards

Hospitals are turning to the veterinary workforce to fill staffing gaps on intensive care wards ahead of an expected peak of covid-19 patients, HSJ can reveal.

Torbay and South Devon Foundation Trust has recruited 150 vets to enrol as “respiratory assistants”, amid preparations for a 10-fold increase of intensive care patients.

Another trust, Hampshire Hospitals FT, has asked vets and dentists to become “bedside support workers” as part of its response to covid-19 pressures.

Two weeks ago, HSJ revealed NHS hospitals face watering down their intensive care staffing ratios due to the increase in demand for intensive care beds, with trusts in London changing the number of nurse per patient from 1:1 to 1:6.

Vets to be ‘eyes and ears’ of medics

At Torbay Hospital, managers are preparing for the possibility that, during the height of the covid-19 surge, there may not be enough staff to treat the increased numbers of intensive care patients using “traditional staff sources” — according to a message sent to local veterinary associations, seen by HSJ (see below).

According to the document, the trust envisages the number of intensive care beds may need to increase by as much as a “factor of ten” during the coming weeks.

The message said it would be “relatively straightforward” to source physical kit to meet this demand, but there is a “critical lack” of suitably skilled personnel.

Intensive care consultants have therefore recruited the vets and veterinary nurses to act as the “eyes and ears” of the ICU medics.

A trust spokeswoman said veterinary staff have “valuable skills that we can use to support our staff in caring for patients with respiratory problems”.

The recruits will be given training this week which will allow them to be matched with consultants and care for ventilated patients “within pre-set parameters and physiological aims”.

The vets will not be part of decisions about “triage, airway interventions such as intubation, or withdrawal of active treatment”.

Under the plans, the vets might be drafted into a new Nightingale hospital which is being established in Exeter.

Their involvement is voluntary, and they will not be paid. The trust said the vets will be indemnified for their work.

A trust spokeswoman said the response from the veterinary community had been “fantastic”, and she added their “generous” support “is not currently required” but is there if needed. 

“We would like to thank all who have offered their support,” she said. 

Trust creates critical care role for vets and dentists

Meanwhile, Hampshire Hospitals FT plans to use vets and dentists — along with other “skilled professionals” — for a bespoke role called “bedside support worker”.

This role, first reported by the Vet Times, has been created to support critical care staff and other medical wards.

Those recruited will receive “close and direct supervision from our clinical teams”, a trust spokesman told HSJ.

“Only those who are assessed to have the appropriate transferable skills, education and training will temporarily join our team,” he said.

“We are incredibly grateful for all of the ways these communities have got behind us and offered their help in any way they can, as we work to provide the best possible care to our patients in these challenging times.”

The move to use vets on intensive care wards is not a national policy.

The South West is the least affected region in England by covid-19 so far, in terms of patients dying with the virus.

The Torbay and South Devon FT spokeswoman said: “We have thorough plans in place to ensure we are able to properly cope with the need for additional beds if the number of patients who need intensive care rises.

“These plans are in action and we are coping well at this time.”