How Do Ventilators Work? Why Are They So Critical for the COVID-19 Pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a public laser focus on a piece of medical equipment most of us probably haven't given much thought to before.As the world scramble desperately to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals are faced with a critical shortage of ventilators, the bedside devices that help patients who have difficulty breathing on their own. For someone who can't get air into his or her lungs, the device can be a lifesaver.


Ventilators assist patients with a number of different conditions. "They can be used to help people breath during routine surgery under anesthesia or also when patients are sick and have difficulty breathing due to their illness," explains Dr. Paul F. Currier, director of the Respiratory Acute Care Unit for the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care at Massachusetts General Hospital, via email. A small proportion of people who become infected with COVID-19 may develop inflammation in their lungs. "An even smaller proportion of these patients can develop respiratory failure which is best treated with a ventilator."