What is a ventilator: The in-demand coronavirus tech

The ongoing coronavirus outbreak has drawn public attention to the topic of medical ventilators and the important role they play for some patients in intensive care. A potential shortage of this vital medical equipment has spurred plans to increase the production of new ventilators in order to mitigate potential and current shortages. What is a medical ventilator and why is it so important?

What is a ventilator?

The novel coronavirus currently impacting people around the world can result in a respiratory disease called COVID-19, which will become severe in a small percentage of people. Of the critical COVID-19 cases, some patients will require ventilators for a chance at surviving, which is why this medical technology is so important during this pandemic.

Severe respiratory disease may cause a drop in oxygen levels or an increase in carbon dioxide levels, putting the patient at risk of damage to their vital organs, including the brain and heart. A medical ventilator addresses this issue by delivering oxygenated air to the lungs while helping carbon dioxide escape.

According to the NIH's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, ventilators can be used as treatment in cases of serious lung diseases and they are vital for life support. The system is complex, involving a breathing tube that is placed in the patient's windpipe, as well as the mechanical ventilator itself, which uses pressure to deliver the oxygenated air into the lungs through the tube.

Global shortages

This technology is vital to save lives, but there is a limited number of ventilator systems available in hospitals. Because of the mostly 'silent' and infectious nature of the novel coronavirus, as well as the lack of immunity among the population, health experts warn that large numbers of people could develop COVID-19 in a short period of time.

If a hospital were to receive more COVID-19 ICU patients in need of ventilators than the number of ventilators it has available, doctors may be forced to make difficult decisions about which patients are treated with the machines. Current outbreak mitigation strategies like social distancing aim to prevent this situation from ever occurring.

This is why a number of countries and businesses have looked into the potential of manufacturing additional ventilator systems before such healthcare burdens arise. According to a recent report in the NYT, multiple ventilator manufacturers in the US and Europe report an inability to keep up with the production demand at this point in time.

In recent days, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said his company will make ventilators if there is a shortage; White House officials have also been in talks with GM and Ford over their potential for supporting the production of additional ventilators.