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.