Study: ECMO shortage linked to premature COVID-19 deaths in hospitalized young adults

Patient with coronavirus infection is connected to ECMO machine in intensive care department.

Nearly 90% of COVID-19 patients who qualified for but did not receive ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) due to a shortage of devices during the pandemic died in the hospital, despite being young with few other health issues, according to a study conducted at a large regional medical center. 

ECMO is a device that pumps your blood through an artificial lung to add oxygen and remove carbon dioxide before returning the blood to your body. The treatment takes over for the heart and lungs to allow the organs time to recover.  Because some patients die despite receiving ECMO, there has been debate about how much benefit it provides, the researchers said. 

At Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, researchers analyzed the total number of patients referred for ECMO at the regional medical center between January 1, 2021 and August 31, 2021.  While 43% of COVID-19 patients who received ECMO ultimately died, 90% of patients who qualified for ECMO but were unable to receive it died—despite both groups having young age and few health complications. As for its benefit: The risk of death among those who received ECMO was almost half that of those who were turned away. 

Once the patient was determined to qualify for ECMO, the medical center made a further assessment of the health system’s resources, including equipment, personnel, and intensive care beds. If these resources were not available, the patient did not receive ECMO.  

The study underscores the need for greater investment in ECMO resources at hospitals, the researchers said. The study, funded by the NHLBI, appeared in the Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.