What is ECMO treatment?

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is an established form of extracorporeal life support (ECLS). ECMO provides cardiopulmonary support in critically ill patients when conventional measures fail (e.g. mechanical ventilation, inotropes or other cardio active drugs, etc.).[1]  

Simply put, ECMO treatment bypasses the task of the lungs. The patient’s blood is withdrawn from the body through cannulas while the blood flow is regulated by a pump. Outside the body, the blood is freed of carbon dioxide (CO₂) and enriched with oxygen (O₂) in a gas exchanger – a so-called artificial lung. The blood is then returned to the body via another cannula.[2]

ECMO – a potential lifesaver during the COVID-19 pandemic

Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) became known to the general population through the fight against the recent coronavirus. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended ECMO treatment for the recovery of the most serious ill COVID-19 patients, when mechanical ventilation is no longer sufficient.[3] ECMO has been used before during severe flu epidemics – such as the swine flu in 2009.[4]

[1] Brogan, T.V. et al. (2017). Extracorporeal Life Support: The ELSO Red Book (5th edition). ELSO.

[2] Sangalli, F. et al. (2014). ECMO – Extracorporeal Life Support in Adults. Milano, Italy: Springer

[3] World Health Organization (2020). Clinical management of severe acute respiratory infection (SA-RI) when COVID-19 disease is suspected. Interim guidance V1.2

[4] Cho, H. J. et al. (2020). ECMO use in COVID-19: lessons from past respiratory virus outbreaks-a narrative review. Crit Care, 24(1), 301