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Post-intensive care syndrome and COVID-19—Implications post pandemic

Article-Post-intensive care syndrome and COVID-19—Implications post pandemic

The pandemic will likely result in more patients with PICS and associated health and economic challenges.

The following article is available in full, including figures and data, on Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine June 2020 as part of its COVID-19 Curbside Consults.

Post-intensive care syndrome (PICS) describes new or worsening physical, cognitive, or mental impairments in a patient following critical illness or intensive care. The COVID-19 pandemic will likely result in many more patients with PICS and its associated health and economic challenges. Screening and assessment tools done during hospitalization, at discharge, and post discharge should be utilized to facilitate services and strategies to improve PICS outcomes for patient and their families.


Since the emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) in 2003 and the 21st century’s first pandemic, the 2009 H1N1 influenza, it has become clear that the effects of serious, life threatening illness extend beyond the hospital stay and can have long-term sequelae for patients.


Post-intensive care syndrome (PICS) refers to a patient with new or worsening impairment in any physical, cognitive, or mental domain after critical illness or intensive care. These impairments persist beyond the intensive care unit (ICU) hospitalization for as long as 5 to 15 years. The major risk factors for the development of PICS are acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), sepsis, delirium, prolonged mechanical ventilation, and multiorgan failure.

Physical impairment in patients due to PICS is prevalent (up to 80%) and includes muscular weakness, fatigue, dyspnea, impaired pulmonary function, decreased exercise tolerance, sexual dysfunction, and respiratory failure that frequently lead to a reduction in activities of daily living and quality of life.

Mental health impairment occurs in 8% to 57% of patients with PICS and include anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) noted both in patients as well as their caregivers. Studies have noted a higher prevalence of post-ICU psychological sequelae in patients who are younger, female sex, have poor recall of ICU stay and longer duration of ICU sedation.

Finally, PICS cognitive impairment is noted in 30% to 80% of patients and includes memory loss and difficulty with concentration, comprehension, and critical thinking. This is reflected in a study of over 800 patients with respiratory failure or shock admitted to intensive care units. Scores on global cognition were 1.5 standard deviation lower than the population and similar to patients with traumatic brain injury with the duration of delirium as independently associated with worse global cognition at 3 months and 1 year.

PICS impairments often last more than a year and have a profound impact on patients’ quality of life, as well as that of their family members, known as PICS-F. Individuals with PICS-F are most commonly affected in the domain of mental health.

As many as 40% of patients with PICS are unable to return to their former level of function, resulting in job loss and financial difficulties that can further complicate access to healthcare. Iatrogenic complications from polypharmacy and fragmentation of care also impact patient recovery as there is often a mismatch between the support needed relative to the support provided.

The unrecognized needs of patients with PICS leads this vulnerable population to increased risk of subsequent hospitalization and emergency department and outpatient visits resulting in extraordinary healthcare-related costs. ARDS survivors are estimated to have a mean post-hospitalization cost of US$43,200 per person. The cost burden of COVID-19 survivors is expected to be higher.


Patients with severe illness due to COVID-19 often develop critical illness with hypoxemic respiratory failure, most commonly ARDS. Patients with COVID-19 treated in the ICU that survive may be at higher risk for developing PICS given the constraints on social support (restricted visitation), prolonged mechanical ventilation with exposure to higher amount of sedatives, and limited physical therapy during and after hospitalization given the risk of disease transmission.

Post-ICU care for patients in rehabilitation centers, skilled nursing facilities, and long-term acute care hospitals is also subject to imposed service limitations due to exposure restrictions, limited personal protective equipment, and risk of transmission to caregivers. Furthermore, limited visitation policies due to the risk of transmission may increase the risk of PIC-F.

The scale of the pandemic foreshadows an incredible burden of patients with PICs with over 3.6 million cases and greater than 140,000 deaths in the United States due to COVID-19. In a study from the post-SARS era, it was observed that patients develop long term fatigue, diffuse myalgia, weakness, depression, and sleep-disordered breathing.

We anticipate that not only will rehabilitation needs increase, but there will likely be higher rates of PTSD, depression, and substance abuse for patients, families, and health care workers which is something that has been seen in large scale disasters such as 9/11.

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