Posts Tagged ‘Anesthesiologist assistants’

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


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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A Call for Civility

Why can’t physician anesthesiologists, nurse anesthetists, and anesthesiologist assistants just get along?

American anesthesiology reached a significant milestone last year, though many of us probably missed it at the time.

In February, 2014, the number of nurse anesthetists in the United States for the first time exceeded the number of physician anesthesiologists. Not only are there more nurses than physicians in the field of anesthesia today, the number of nurses entering the field is growing at a faster rate than the number of physicians. Since December, 2012, the number of nurse anesthetists has grown by 12.1 percent compared to 5.8 percent for physician anesthesiologists.

The numbers—about 46,600 nurse anesthetists and 45,700 physician anesthesiologists—reported in the National Provider Identifier (NPI) dataset for January, 2015, probably understate the growing disparity. Today, more and more physicians are leaving the front lines of medicine, many obtaining additional qualifications such as MBA degrees and embarking on new careers in hospital administration or business.

Physician anesthesiologists can expect that fewer of us every year will continue to work in the model of personally providing anesthesia care to individual patients. Clinical practice is likely to skew even more toward the anesthesia care team model, already dominant in every part of the US except the west coast, with supervision of nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologist assistants.

So why does the level of animosity between physician anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists seem to be getting worse, even as the care team gains greater prominence? Does the anonymity of the Internet bring out the worst in everyone and make civilized discourse impossible?

Anesthesiologist assistants (AAs), of course, are to anesthesiologists what physician assistants are to physicians in other specialties. They are under the jurisdiction of medical boards, not of nursing boards, and are firm supporters of anesthesiologists. In contrast, the website of the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA) states that nurse anesthetists “collaborate with other members of a patient’s healthcare team: surgeons, obstetricians, endoscopists, podiatrists, pain specialists”—a list which pointedly excludes physician anesthesiologists.

Perhaps increasing downward pressure on payments and tough competition among hospitals are worsening the strain on anesthesia practitioners of all stripes. But in an era where healthcare professionals are faced with onerous new rules and regulations on a daily basis, and report alarming levels of burnout, does it make sense for groups with so much in common to be permanently at odds? Wouldn’t they do better as allies? In the field of anesthesia, why can’t physicians, nurses, and AAs just get along?

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This column was written on behalf of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, and was first published by KevinMD on December 22, 2013.

When you need anesthesia for surgery or a diagnostic procedure, of course you want to know who’ll be giving you anesthesia.  If you live in Texas, Florida, the District of Columbia, or 14 other states, you may be lucky enough to have an anesthesia team taking care of you that includes a physician anesthesiologist and an anesthesiologist assistant, or “AA”.  If you live in many other states–including my own state of California–care from an AA isn’t yet an option.

Many Americans have never heard of anesthesiologist assistants.  Even many physicians are unaware that the profession exists.  But for more than 45 years, AAs have worked alongside physician anesthesiologists in exactly the same way that physician assistants (PAs) work with a surgeon, internist, or pediatrician–using teamwork to deliver the best possible medical care to their patients.

Today, there are more than 1400 certified AAs in the U.S.  Why are they limited to practicing only in certain states?  It’s a complicated question.  The answer involves the fierce opposition of nurse anesthetists to the very existence of the AA profession, our complex American system of state licensure, and the economics of healthcare.

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