Physical Therapist Management of COVID-19 in the Intensive Care Unit: The West China Hospital Experience

Phys Ther. 2021 Jan 4;101(1):pzaa198. doi: 10.1093/ptj/pzaa198.


Objective: Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has dominated the attention of health care systems globally since January 2020. Various health disciplines, including physical therapists, are still exploring the best way to manage this new disease. The role and involvement of physical therapists in the management of COVID-19 are not yet well defined and are limited in many hospitals. This article reports a physical therapy service specially commissioned by the Health Commission of Sichuan Province to manage COVID-19 during patients' stay in the intensive care unit (ICU) at the Public Health Clinical Center of Chengdu in China.

Methods: Patients diagnosed with COVID-19 were classified into 4 categories under a directive from the National Health Commission of the People's Republic of China. Patients in the "severe" and "critical" categories were admitted to the ICU irrespective of mechanical ventilation was required. Between January 31, 2020, and March 8, 2020, a cohort of 16 patients was admitted to the ICU at the Public Health Clinical Center of Chengdu. The median (minimum to maximum) hospital and ICU stays for these patients were 27 (11-46) and 15 (6-38) days, respectively. Medical management included antiviral, immunoregulation, and supportive treatment of associated comorbidities. Physical therapist interventions included body positioning, airway clearance techniques, oscillatory positive end-expiratory pressure, inspiratory muscle training, and mobility exercises. All patients had at least 1 comorbidity. Three of the 16 patients required mechanical ventilation and were excluded for outcome measures that required understanding of verbal instructions. In the remaining 13 patients, respiratory outcomes-including the Borg Dyspnea Scale, peak expiratory flow rate, Pao2/Fio2 ratio, maximal inspiratory pressure, strength outcomes, Medical Research Council Sum Score, and functional outcomes (including the Physical Function in Intensive Care Test score, De Morton Mobility Index, and Modified Barthel Index)-were measured on the first day the patient received the physical therapist intervention and at discharge.

Results: At discharge from the ICU, while most outcome measures were near normal for the majority of the patients, 61% and 31% of these patients had peak expiratory flow rate and maximal inspiratory pressure, respectively, below 80% of the predicted value and 46% had De Morton Mobility Index values below the normative value.

Conclusion: The respiratory and physical functions of some patients remained poor at ICU discharge, suggesting that long-term rehabilitation may be required for these patients.

Impact: Our experience in the management of patients with COVID-19 has revealed that physical therapist intervention is safe and appears to be associated with an improvement in respiratory and physical function in patients with COVID-19 in the ICU.

Keywords: COVID-19; ICU; Inspiratory Muscle Training; Maximal Inspiratory Pressure; Oscillatory Positive End-Expiratory Pressure; Physical Function.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • COVID-19 / rehabilitation*
  • China
  • Cohort Studies
  • Critical Care*
  • Female
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care
  • Patient Selection
  • Physical Therapy Modalities*
  • Respiration, Artificial