Fame and fentanyl

Poppies, the original source of opium…  

A fentanyl overdose led to the recent death of musician and singer Prince, according to the medical examiner’s report released June 2. The drug seems likely to become as notorious as propofol did after the death of Michael Jackson in 2009.

For all of us in anesthesiology who’ve been using fentanyl as a perfectly respectable anesthetic medication and pain reliever for as long as we can remember, it’s startling to see it become the cause of rising numbers of deaths from overdose.  Fentanyl is a potent medication, useful in the operating room to cover the intense but short-lived stimulation of surgery. The onset of action is very fast, and the time that the drug effect lasts is relatively brief.

But fentanyl was never intended for casual use. Fentanyl is many times more potent than morphine; 100 micrograms, or 0.1 mg, of IV fentanyl is roughly equivalent to 10 mg of IV morphine. In March, the LA Times reported that 28 overdoses — six of them fatal — occurred in Sacramento over the course of just one week. The victims had taken pills that resembled Norco, a common pain reliever, but in fact the pills were laced with fentanyl. Even tiny amounts were enough to be lethal.

Like all opioids, fentanyl reduces the drive to breathe, and after a large enough dose a patient will stop breathing entirely. In addition to its effect on respiratory drive, fentanyl may also produce rigidity of the muscles in the chest and abdomen, severe enough to hamper attempts to ventilate or perform CPR.

What exactly is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is an inexpensive member of a class of drugs called “opioids”, which are powerful pain relieving medications. The word “opium” is derived from the Greek word for juice, because the juice of the poppy flower was the original source of opium. Starting in Mesopotamia, the opium poppy has been cultivated since at least 3000 BC. The term “opiate” is used to designate drugs derived from opium. Morphine was the first of these, isolated in 1803, followed by codeine in 1832.

The development of techniques to synthesize drugs in a laboratory, as opposed to the cultivation of poppy fields, has led to the use of the term “opioids” to refer to any and all substances that treat pain by acting on opioid receptors in the central nervous system. The term “narcotic” is often used as a synonym. It’s derived from the Greek word for stupor, and is used to refer to any morphine-like drug with the potential for addiction.

Fentanyl is cheap, and the powdered form is being synthesized in clandestine laboratories in the U.S. and Mexico according to news reports. What’s leading to the spate of new overdoses is the fact that some dealers are quietly adding fentanyl to heroin to increase the “high”. A user injects what he thinks is his usual quantity of heroin, not realizing that it may be mixed with fentanyl. The mixture is far more potent and may be deadly.

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bradjohnsnow

Another of your consistently superb essays translating medical jibberish into information easily understood by the public.PLEASE gather these into a book sometime in the future!

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Certified Anesthesiologist Assistants (CAAs) are superbly trained anesthesia caregivers, loyal supporters of physician anesthesiologists, and eager to come to work in every state if we can just get state legislatures to grant them licenses to practice!

That was the message I heard clearly in Denver this past weekend, as a guest faculty member at the 40th annual meeting of the American Academy of Anesthesiologist Assistants (AAAA). More than 600 CAAs and student AAs from across the country made the journey to Colorado, one of the 18 states where CAAs are currently able to practice their profession, to hear lectures, promote advocacy, and attend workshops.

Anyone who still doubts that CAAs are champions of our profession should have been there! The ASA cosponsored the meeting, and ASA President-Elect Jeff Plagenhoef, MD, delivered this year’s Gravenstein Memorial Lecture, a powerful talk on “Professional Citizenship” in anesthesiology.

Ready to relocate!

“Many experienced CAAs are telling me they are ready to drop everything and relocate to California whenever we can work there,” said Megan Varellas, CAA, the immediate past president of the Academy. Her viewpoint was echoed by other CAAs I spoke with, including Maria Williamson, CAA, and her fiancé, Jeff Carroll, CAA, who currently practice in Florida. Ms. Williamson’s parents live in southern California, and the couple would be eager to move here if they could work.

The ASA strongly supports CAAs as members of the physician-led anesthesia care team. Their master’s level educational programs are located at medical schools, not nursing schools, and physician anesthesiologists direct their training. CAAs work exclusively within the anesthesia care team, under physician anesthesiologist supervision. Their services are attractive to many physician-only practices that want to move toward a care team model.

At present, though, despite a shortage of qualified anesthesia practitioners in California, CAAs can’t yet work here. Last year, CSA sponsored AB 890, a bill championed by Assembly Member Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), which would have recognized CAA practice in California. The bill stalled in the Appropriations Committee, but CSA hasn’t given up. We plan to introduce a new bill to authorize full CAA licensure, and realize that it’s typical for these legislative efforts to take more than one attempt to pass.

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A better pathway to acute care

When patients need acute interventional care, coordinating the transitions away from and back to primary care is a challenge. The common pathway for these patients, no matter what their diagnosis, is an encounter with anesthesiology. But it often happens too late in the process. If we’re involved earlier, physician anesthesiologists can help reduce procedure risk, control costs, and improve the long-term health of this high-risk, high-spend population.                    

The numbers haven’t changed significantly in several years—only five percent of the U.S. population consumes a full 50 percent of annual health care spending, and just one percent is responsible for nearly 23 percent of spending.

Within the top 10 percent of high spenders, most (nearly 80 percent) are age 45 or older. About 42 percent are persistent high consumers year after year, while the majority requires high spending only on an occasional basis. These episodes of high health care consumption often involve surgery or other invasive procedures in the older patient population.

The experience of undergoing surgery inevitably disrupts a patient’s normal routine of care, even if the surgery is a common elective procedure such as a total joint replacement. Too often, the primary care physician may be unaware that the patient has actually undergone surgery.

Even if the patient’s primary physicians are informed of the plan for elective surgery, they may be left out of the loop regarding discharge planning, the need for post-acute care and rehabilitation, and any changes made to the patient’s medication and diet regimen. Lapses in care and deterioration of chronic medical conditions may result, with the frail, older patient population clearly at highest risk.

Why we should rethink current practices

Within every community population, a subset of patients will be in need of procedural care at any point in time. This care may involve an operation. Or it may involve a substantial, invasive procedure for diagnosis or treatment, such as ablation of cardiac arrhythmia, ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography), or insertion of an endovascular stent.

The common pathway for this entire population subset, regardless of the diagnosis or any other factors, is an encounter with anesthesiology before, during, and after the procedure. Today, that encounter often begins way too late in the process.

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As always, you are an incredible writer and clearly passionate about this subject. I always get a little nervous when I hear doctors talking about population health instead of individual patient health, "quality" measures in medicine, and bending cost curves in medicine. The baby boomers are aging and their health care costs are high and going to get higher. I realize that the government and other third party payers are concerned about those costs. However, my oath was to my patients and not ...Read More

Art Boudreaux

Great article Karen!

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Nothing brings out the mama lioness in me more than seeing one of my cubs not being treated as well as I think it should be.

Recently I had the unusual experience of accompanying my oldest daughter into an unfamiliar hospital for a minor surgical procedure. Now this daughter isn’t exactly a cub — she’s a full-fledged adult, with a master’s degree in health care administration, a husband, and two small boys of her own.

But as I watched the OR team prepare her for surgery, I started to feel like an odd combination of a mama lioness and a secret shopper. To the staff members who came in and out of the hospital’s preoperative area, it was clear that I was simply the family member in the corner, and they probably figured I had little clue about what was transpiring. Meanwhile, I was taking in every detail. Some tasks were performed excellently — others, not so much.

The hospital where her surgery took place is a small community hospital on Long Island. It enjoys a location where Jerry Seinfeld, Christie Brinkley, and other wealthy New Yorkers maintain lavish homes for weekend and summer holidays.

My daughter was instructed to arrive at 6:30 a.m. Her procedure involved an initial stop in radiology, to be followed by the actual surgery. As a veteran of hospital life, I questioned whether radiology even opened that early, but we had no way of checking. So we left her house at 5:25, driving carefully on dark, icy roads with fresh snow, and lining up for a 5:40 a.m. ferry ride from her home town so that we could arrive at the hospital by 6:30.

The good news — a valet met us at the hospital door and whisked away the car, so we had only a moment to savor the 20-degree weather and the harsh wind that made it feel colder. My daughter was promptly escorted to a private room to change clothes.

Hurry up and wait

A nurse gave her an insulated paper gown with two openings to connect it to a wall-mounted forced air warming unit. This, I thought, was a wonderful thing. Where I’ve worked, we had forced air warming blankets in the ORs but the hospital wouldn’t spend the money to put them in the preoperative areas. I thought of Tina Fey, playing an immigrant from Albania in a Saturday Night Live spoof of the HBO series “Girls”, and imagined her saying, “In my country, we do not have such things.” Within minutes, my daughter’s gown was hooked up to the warmer and she was feeling much cozier.

Then we waited.

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I'm glad that some parts to that day were positive - i.e. quick out of the cold due to the valet, the warming unit, and that the surgery went well. I had surgery in December and they gave me one of those warming units to use in pre-op - it was wonderful. I have had interactions with a few medical professionals in my lifetime in which I have had similar experiences. I have never figured out if they were just having a rough day or ...Read More

bradjohnsnow

Karen: Wait until you are actually the patient, as I have been frequently in recent years. "Modern Medicine" is terrifying for someone who actually knows a better time - far closer to the quality offered by Lucy in Peanuts than that taught by Sir William Osler!(Except the charges are more like Tiffany than like even Sir William's charges.) It's already too late to fix it, Karen! Which gives rise to the question: "Is it better to be like your daughter and not to know how ...Read More

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Short-selling private practice

Today, January 29, is a remarkable day for me. I’m officially leaving private practice after almost 18 years, to return to academic medicine with a faculty position in a highly regarded California department of anesthesiology.

Why would I do that?

There are many positive reasons. I believe in the teaching mission of academic medicine:  to train the anesthesiologists of the future, and the scientists who will advance medical care. I enjoy teaching. The years I’ve spent at the head of the operating room table, anesthetizing patients every day, have given me a great deal of hands-on experience (and at least some wisdom) that I’m happy to pass along to the next generation.

But the other, more pragmatic reason is this. I’ve lost confidence in the ability of private-practice anesthesiology in California to survive in its prevalent form — physician-only, personally provided anesthesiology care.

MD-only:  A viable model?

California is an outlier among all other states in its ratio of physicians to non-physicians in the practice of clinical anesthesia. Nationally, there are slightly more non-physicians — including nurse anesthetists (about 47,000) and anesthesiologist assistants (about 1,700) — than physician anesthesiologists (about 46,000) in the workforce, according to 2015 National Provider Identifier (NPI) data.

But in California, there are about 5,500 physician anesthesiologists and only 1,500 nurse anesthetists in the workforce, while anesthesiologist assistants can’t yet be licensed here at all. Though some other states, chiefly in the western half of the U.S., also have more physicians than nurses in the anesthesia workforce, none tops California’s ratio of more than 3.5 to 1.

It’s hard to see how such a physician-skewed model of anesthesia care can continue to be financially viable, no matter how much affection I have for it. I genuinely love safeguarding my patients through anesthesia for complex surgical procedures, from beginning to end. But there’s no way that it makes sense for many of the tasks involved to be performed directly by a physician. If the Institute of Medicine advocates for nurses to practice “to the full extent of their education and training” in order to provide cost-effective care, it stands to reason that physicians ought to work at the top of their licenses too.

Many of the daily tasks involved in MD-only, personally-provided anesthesia care could and should be delegated to nurses, pharmacists, and technicians. Easy examples include starting IVs, drawing up medications, labeling syringes, and monitoring a patient’s blood pressure. Surgeons don’t perform these tasks during surgery, intensive care physicians don’t perform them in ICUs, and hospitalists don’t perform them on the inpatient wards. And we haven’t even mentioned other routine tasks such as changing the suction tubing on the anesthesia machine between cases — a duty that is well within the skill set of the OR clean-up crew. It makes no fiscal sense, in our cost-conscious time, for physicians to be performing these tasks personally.

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karen

Dear Dr. Tse, Advice? Read everything you can find about the business of anesthesia. One excellent common-sense online source is Tony Mira's Anesthesia Business Consultants' quarterly communique. Go to meetings such as the ASA's Practice Management, and get familiar with the concepts of the Perioperative Surgical Home. If a private practice you're looking at doesn't seem to be keeping up with the times, be wary. Smart practices are working closely with their hospitals and extending their footprint outside the OR. Since this website is strictly ...Read More

Brian

Congratulations on this transition in your career and for sharing your forecast on the climate of California's anesthesia marketplace. What advice would you have for a current resident who plans to stay and practice in California to prepare for this? We will spend years in the role of being supervised, but upon graduating will likely be in a role of having to supervise others. Also, which institution will you be joining? Thanks!

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