In Japan, hospital air mattress lifts caregivers’ COVID-19 burden

A growing number of Japanese hospitals have recently benefited from a special air mattress that helps staff to transfer critically ill COVID-19 patients more easily and safely to improve their breathing.

The country has seen a surge in hospitals introducing mattresses that suspend a patient on an air cushion on the bed, eliminating the six or seven people normally required to complete the task, turning one person onto their front , to be reduced by about half – widely considered a proven method for relieving shortness of breath.

As they become more popular, hospitals expect the mattresses will also help solve some issues related to staffing shortages.

The mattress is placed between the bed and the supine patient, and a pump is used to inflate it and suspend and weigh the patient’s body. Several thousand tiny holes under the mattress push air out and reduce friction between the bed and the mattress when a patient is being transferred.

Handles that are pulled when the patient turns are located on the sides of the mattress and almost no force is required for the maneuver, health workers say.

In fact, a patient can be transferred with the mattress by one person, but at least three people are recommended to provide support and ensure that, for example, the breathing tube does not become detached during the procedure.

The product, called HoverMatt, was developed in the United States. Meilleur, a medical device company based in Yachiyo, Chiba Prefecture, began importing and selling these products in 2016.

The mattress traditionally aids in transferring a patient from a bed to a stretcher and is widely used for this purpose in the United States, but it has only been used in 14 hospitals in Japan in the five years to 2020.

The turning point came in December 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing. The Japanese Society of Respiratory Care Medicine presented the mattress at an exhibition as a device that could be used to place critically ill COVID-19 patients in the prone position, which relieves their discomfort.

Lying face down for long periods of time reduces the pressure on the lungs.

In about 10 months to October 2021, 19 medical institutes, including university hospitals in 12 prefectures, rolled out the mattresses — and inquiries have been piling up since the start of the sixth wave of the pandemic triggered by the Omicron variant.

“Almost all hospitals are now using the mattresses in intensive care units for prone therapy,” said Hideki Sato, head of Meilleur.

He said the mattresses are particularly useful in reducing the risk of breathing tubes accidentally slipping out when a patient is turned over and reducing the strain on caregivers, many of whom complain of lower back pain.

Data has shown that 85% of caregivers have suffered from back pain, with around 60% saying that moving patients is particularly difficult.

Marina Kikuya, 34, a COVID-19 intensive care unit nurse at Hokkaido University Hospital, says the air mattresses introduced there have made a significant difference.

“Until recently, every time we decided to move a patient, it was this huge affair involving a large number of people and we actually had to count out loud ‘one, two, three’ and commit to the task together.” said Kikuya.

“Since we introduced the mattresses, it has become really easy, especially physically. It has also reduced the burden on the patient and improved the quality of the reduction procedure. I hope many hospitals implement it.”

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