Dr. Tariq Cheema thinks back to last December, when COVID-19 patients packed his hospital, some of whom would be stabilized and discharged, but then eventually die.
There was one particular woman, Dr. Cheema said, who inspired him to help conceive and found a post-COVID-19 recovery clinic at the Allegheny Health Network near Pittsburgh. This patient was in her early 30s, a mother of four and had no chronic medical conditions. She seemed to be doing O.K., so they sent her home.
"But she'd rapidly had a decline in her lungs, and ended up back in the ICU on a ventilator and eventually passed away. That was the turning point for me," said Cheema, who is the clinic lead at the Allegheny Health Network Post COVID-19 Recovery Clinic. "We started seeing those types of cases where everybody thought that they were out of the woods, and then they would get discharged, and a couple of weeks later show up in the emergency room in complete cardiac arrest and pass away."
Cheema and his colleagues at the Allegheny Health Network Post COVID-19 Recovery Clinic wanted to create a specific program for patients who'd had COVID-19 that would facilitate check-ins after they recovered from their initial illnesses. So far, they've been slammed.
"The minute we opened this clinic, we got bombarded with cases," Cheema said.
Health systems across the country are opening post-COVID-19 clinics to care for people who have a wide range of symptoms and are desperate for reassurance that they're not going nuts. Many doctors don't know what to do with patients presenting with up to eight symptoms ranging from shortness of breath and fatigue to anxiety and tingling in their fingers.
Up to one-fifth of COVID-19 patients will develop long-haul symptoms. Because there is such a wide range of symptoms that don't have clear causes, caring for those people involves a long string of lab and diagnostic testing, detailed intake histories and referrals to all kinds of specialists.
All that work generates money, said Dr. William Lago, a family medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic who was involved in the creation of its reCOVer Clinics for people who'd contracted the virus.
"From the business standpoint for each of these patients, there's lab, cardiology and pulmonary workups and, since we're utilizing a number of our existing specialists even within their own offices, when you look at the overall reCOVer Clinic, that in itself from the standpoint of the hospital practice brings revenue," Lago said.
At the two-hospital, not-for-profit system Edward-Elmhurst Health outside Chicago, administrators knew its patients would end up traveling to academic medical centers like Northwestern or Rush when symptoms recurred, and they saw an opportunity.
"We're really the first health system that's not an academic system to develop these clinics" in the area, said Samantha Rodriguez, system manager for neurosciences programs and acute care services at Edward-Elmhurst Health. "We didn't want to lose our patient population when we knew that we had these resources available within our system."