Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

You may have read about the recent tragic deaths of two healthy children – Marvelena Rady, age 3, and Caleb Sears, age 6 – in California dental offices. Unfortunately, they aren’t the first children to die during dental procedures, and unless things change, they probably won’t be the last.

State Senator Jerry Hill has asked the Dental Board of California (DBC) to review California’s present laws and regulations concerning pediatric dental anesthesia, and determine if they’re adequate to assure patient safety. Assemblymember Tony Thurmond has sponsored “Caleb’s Law”, seeking improved informed consent for parents.

On July 28, I had the opportunity to attend a stakeholder’s meeting at the Department of Consumer Affairs in Sacramento, to hear a presentation of the DBC’s report, and to be part of the delegation offering comments on behalf of the California Society of Anesthesiologists (CSA). We hope this is the beginning of some long overdue upgrades to the current regulations.

By long-standing California state law, dentists and oral surgeons are able to provide anesthesia services in their offices even for very young children or children with serious health issues. They may apply for one of four different types of permits for anesthesia:

General anesthesia

Adult oral conscious sedation

Pediatric oral conscious sedation

Parenteral conscious sedation.

But the route of administration – oral or intravenous – isn’t the point, especially for small children, and oral sedation isn’t necessarily safer. Sedation is a continuum, and there is no way of reliably predicting when a patient will fall asleep. Relaxation may turn into deep sedation, and deep sedation into a state of unresponsiveness which is equivalent to general anesthesia. Oral medications have led to deaths in children, sometimes even before the dental procedure has begun or well after it has finished. There’s no logic in California’s lower standards of emergency equipment and monitoring for procedures done under sedation as opposed to under general anesthesia.

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I admit, I was taken aback at the headline in the Houston Press:

GOING UNDER:  WHAT CAN HAPPEN IF YOUR ANESTHESIOLOGIST LEAVES THE ROOM DURING AN OPERATION

The curious reader is bound to wonder why the anesthesiologist would leave the operating room in the first place.

Of course, reporter Dianna Wray explains that in many hospitals, one physician anesthesiologist often supervises multiple cases staffed by nurse anesthetists. This model of care is called the “anesthesia care team“, and has a very long record of safe practice in nearly all major hospitals in the United States. Typically, the anesthesiologist makes rounds from one operating room to the next, checking on each case frequently, just as an internal medicine physician would round on patients in the hospital who are being monitored by their nurses.

Ms. Wray’s article narrates in detail what happened in several anesthesia cases where things went horribly wrong. She points out that the patients and families were not aware that the anesthesiologist would not be present during the entire case.

Complications can develop with patients on the ward, in the intensive care unit, or in the OR. In any medical setting, the nurse’s job is to recognize the problem in time to call for help, so that the physician can respond and the patient can be treated successfully. Sometimes, the call for help may not come in time for successful resuscitation. The results can be tragic — cardiac arrest, brain damage, even death. Hospitals track “Failure to Rescue” events that cause adverse patient outcomes as a Joint Commission and CMS standard for measuring quality in nursing care.

The fact is — anesthesia is dangerous. We have made huge strides in developing safer drugs and better monitoring techniques. But going under anesthesia — losing consciousness from the drugs we give — is really the same thing as inducing coma. Most anesthesia drugs have the potential to depress breathing, lower blood pressure, and decrease the function of the heart. Even regional anesthesia, using proven techniques such as spinal and epidural blocks, can cause major complications.

I can verify that even the most routine procedure — under sedation, regional block, or general anesthesia — has the potential to evolve into a crisis. Some days are completely routine, and some days I find I need every scrap of medical knowledge and experience I can bring to the problems my patients face.

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Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, a cardiologist, believes with good reason that many physicians have become “like everybody else:  insecure, discontented and anxious about the future.”  In a recent, widely-circulated column in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Doctors Are Sick of Their Profession,” he explains how medicine has become simply a job, not a calling, for many physicians; how their pay has declined, how the majority now say they wouldn’t advise their children to enter the medical profession, and how this malaise can’t be good for patients.

Dr. Jauhar gets it right in many ways, but the solutions he recommends miss their mark completely.

I was 100% in accord with Dr. Jauhar when he argued that “there are many measures of success in medicine:  income, of course, but also creating attachments with patients, making a difference in their lives and providing good care while responsibly managing limited resources.”

The next paragraph, though, I read with astonishment.  Does Dr. Jauhar really believe that publicizing surgeons’ mortality rates or physicians’ readmission rates can be “incentive schemes” that will reduce physician burnout?  Does he seriously think that “giving rewards for patient satisfaction” will put the joy back into practicing medicine?

If so, I’m afraid he doesn’t understand the problem that he set out to solve.

The truth behind “quality” metrics

There is no question that some physicians are inherently more talented, more dedicated, and more skilled than others.  In every hospital, if you speak to staff members privately, they’ll tell you which surgeon to see for a slipped disk, a kidney transplant, or breast cancer.  They’ll tell you which of the anesthesiologists they trust most, and which cardiologist they would recommend to someone with chest pain.  But none of these recommendations are based on simplistic metrics like readmission rates or even mortality rates.  They are based on observations over time of the physicians’ ability, integrity, and conscientiousness–all of which are tough to quantify.

Let’s take, for example, a common operation such as laparoscopic cholecystectomy:  removal of the gallbladder using cameras and instruments inserted through small incisions in the abdomen.  This is a procedure which most general surgeons perform often, with few complications.

When complications occur, there are almost always factors involved other than surgical error.  Patients with diabetes are more likely to develop wound infections, for instance.  Surgery on patients who have had prior abdominal operations may take longer and could cause bleeding or damage to other internal organs because of scar tissue.  Morbid obesity and advanced age are risk factors too.

The surgeon whose mortality rates are higher, or whose patients are more likely to be readmitted to the hospital, may be dealing with a much different patient population from the surgeon with the lowest rates.  An inner-city hospital may admit more patients as emergency cases, in more advanced stages of disease.

It’s difficult for statistics to reflect accurately the dramatic differences among patients that affect surgical outcome.  A noncompliant patient who doesn’t fill prescriptions and follow instructions is more likely to have problems, independent of the experience and skill of the surgeon.  Trying to distinguish among surgeons with “outcomes data” will only result in more surgeons refusing to operate on high-risk patients.

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There’s no mystery about why the July 23 execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona took so long. From the anesthesiologist’s point of view, it doesn’t seem surprising that the combination of drugs used—midazolam and hydromorphone—might take nearly two hours to cause death.

Here’s why.

The convicted murderer didn’t receive one component of the usual mixture of drugs used in lethal injection: a muscle relaxant. The traditional cocktail includes a drug such as pancuronium or vecuronium, which paralyzes muscles and stops breathing. After anyone receives a large dose of one of these powerful muscle relaxants, it’s impossible to breathe at all. Death follows within minutes.

But for whatever reason, the Arizona authorities decided not to use a muscle-relaxant drug in Mr. Wood’s case. They used only drugs that produce sedation and depress breathing. Given enough of these medications, death will come in due time. But in the interim, the urge to breathe is a powerful and primitive reflex.

So-called “agonal” breathing, which precedes death, may go on for minutes to hours. The gasping or snoring that eyewitnesses described would be very typical. People who are unconscious after overdoses of heroin try to breathe in a similarly slow, ineffective way, before they finally stop breathing altogether or are rescued by emergency crews.

More about the drugs

Midazolam is a member of a class of drugs called benzodiazepines. The common “benzos” that many people take include Valium, Xanax, and Ativan. What these drugs have in common is that they produce relaxation and sleep. You might take a Xanax pill, for instance, to help you nap during a long flight.

In anesthesiology, we use benzodiazepines for another important reason: because they produce amnesia. There are stories of people taking a Valium to relax a little before they give an important talk, and the next day panicking because they can’t remember if they actually showed up and gave the talk.

Amnesia can be very helpful in my business. Many of my patients don’t want to remember coming into the operating room and seeing the bright lights and surgical instruments. After I inject one or two milligrams of midazolam into the IV, they’re often smiling and relaxed, and they have no memory later of coming into the operating room at all.  The next thing they know, surgery is over and they’re waking up.

Hydromorphone is a member of a different class of medications: narcotics. These include powerful pain relievers such as morphine, Demerol, heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone. These medications, in large doses, will slow or even stop breathing altogether. That’s why the risk of overdose is emphasized so strongly, and why narcotics cause so many accidental overdose deaths.

When you put benzodiazepines and narcotics together, the risk of death by overdose rises sharply. These drugs in combination were implicated in the deaths of actors Heath Ledger and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. There’s no question that if you take enough of these drugs, your breathing will slow and eventually stop if no one steps in to help you.

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I give what could be lethal injections for a living.

That’s right. Nearly every day I give someone an injection of midazolam, vecuronium, and an IV solution containing potassium chloride–the three drugs in the “cocktail” that was supposed to kill convicted murderer Clayton Lockett quickly and humanely in Oklahoma.

Here’s the difference between an executioner and me. I use those medications as they are intended to be used, giving anesthesia to my patients, because I’m a physician who specializes in anesthesiology. Midazolam produces sedation and amnesia, vecuronium temporarily paralyzes muscles, and the right amount of potassium chloride is essential for normal heart function. These drugs could be deadly if I didn’t intervene.

My job is to rescue the patient with life support measures, and then to reverse the drugs’ effects when surgery is over. The “rescue” part is critical. When Michael Jackson stopped breathing and Dr. Conrad Murray didn’t rescue him in time, propofol–another anesthesia medication–turned into an inadvertently lethal injection.

When anesthesia medications are used in an execution, of course, no one steps in to rescue the inmate. This gives new meaning to the term “drug abuse”. In my opinion, the whole concept of lethal injection is a perversion of the fundamental ethics of practicing medicine.

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