Posts Tagged ‘patient safety’

How reporter Jan Hoffman and the New York Times manage to insult female physicians and get their facts about anesthesia so wrong all at the same time.

My husband and I, both anesthesiologists, enjoy our Sunday mornings together — coffee, the New York Times, a leisurely breakfast. No rush to arrive in the operating room before many people are even awake.

Today, though, seeing reporter Jan Hoffman’s front-page article in the Times — “Staying Awake for Your Surgery?” — was enough to take the sparkle out of the sugar. Her article on how much better it is to be awake than asleep for surgery reminded me why I left a plum job as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal to go to medical school — because reporters have to do a quick, superficial job of covering complex issues. They aren’t experts, but seldom admit it.

Physician anesthesiologists across the country are likely to face patients on Monday morning who wonder if they ought to be awake for their surgery. The answer to that question may well be “no”. But according to Ms. Hoffman, that answer reflects “physician paternalism”, and makes us opponents of the “patient autonomy movement”, because a patient should have the right to choose to be awake.

It’s not that simple.

Knee scope? C-section? Being awake is nothing new

Ms. Hoffman decided to stay awake for her knee arthroscopy, which is hardly front-page news. Many people, especially athletes, are fascinated to watch their own knee surgery. But the spinal anesthetic Ms. Hoffman enjoyed is still a type of major anesthesia, and it required anesthesia expertise for its safe insertion and her smooth recovery. Cardiac arrest may occur under spinal anesthesia, even in young and otherwise healthy patients, and every patient needs to understand that “awake” isn’t the same thing as risk-free.

As recently as 20 years ago, most orthopedic surgeons wanted their patients asleep under general anesthesia for any major operation such as a total hip or knee replacement. It was physician anesthesiologists who gradually turned opinion in favor of regional anesthesia by developing spinal needles that reduced headache risk, and ultrasound-guided techniques that made nerve blocks safer, faster, and more reliable. The “patient autonomy movement” had nothing to do with it. Ms. Hoffman’s implication that anesthesiologists have been the followers rather than the leaders in regional anesthesia is especially insulting to the American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine (ASRA), founded in 1923.

Obstetric anesthesiologists deserve credit for demonstrating that expert regional anesthesia — epidural and spinal anesthesia for cesarean section — plays a major role in today’s low rates of complications and death during childbirth. The Society for Obstetric Anesthesia and Perinatology (SOAP) is about to celebrate its 50th year of advocating for the health of pregnant patients and newborns, and for safe, awake childbirth. Dr. Virginia Apgar, lest we forget, was an anesthesiologist first and the inventor of the Apgar score second.

When “awake” isn’t an option

Today’s “minimally invasive” surgical techniques, such as laparoscopy, have made surgery possible for millions of patients with less pain, smaller incisions, and faster recovery. But here’s a fact that Ms. Hoffman may not appreciate:  general anesthesia makes these techniques possible.

General anesthesia with complete muscle relaxation is often a must for minimally invasive and “robotic” surgery performed with small cameras and other instruments inserted into the chest or abdomen. I often tell my residents never to use the word “paralysis” around patients because it might alarm them unnecessarily. “Say ‘muscle relaxation’ instead,” I advise. But the fact is that the patient’s muscles must be paralyzed under anesthesia for the surgeon to work on a motionless target.

The patient’s breathing has to be precisely controlled, which means that the anesthesiologist must insert an endotracheal (breathing) tube and manage the settings on the ventilator to breathe for the patient until the operation is done. For some operations, the patient must be in a steep head-up or head-down position, with both arms snugly tucked at the sides, and must remain in that position for hours.

After the patient is safely asleep under general anesthesia, we give “muscle relaxants” to block the ability to move, breathe, or cough. The actions of these medications are reversed at the end of surgery so that the patient starts to breathe again. Then we allow the patient to wake up. This is all part of the profession and specialty of anesthesiology. Like the making of sausage and political deals, we keep this part of the work quietly behind the scenes. I can’t imagine that any patient would want to be awake for it.

Cheaper surgery without anesthesia?

Absolutely. It’s cheaper to have surgery without anesthesia. If I needed a small procedure that could be done in my doctor’s office under local anesthesia, of course that’s what I would choose. A good rule to live by is not to take any medication you don’t need, and that includes pain-killers, sedatives, and anesthesia medications.

But Ms. Hoffman is misleading patients to make them think that they can opt to have a procedure without anesthesia as a “personal budget” choice.

Even if a patient prefers local anesthesia or minimal sedation alone, the procedure might not be tolerable due to anxiety, pain, or the inability to lie still. That’s not always possible to predict. If the patient needs the option of converting to deep sedation or general anesthesia, then the services of the anesthesia department’s physicians and nurses will be involved and must be scheduled in advance. They aren’t free, any more than the services of your surgeons and operating room nurses are free. There isn’t a “bench” of anesthesiologists on stand-by just in case you need us. Either we see a patient in advance, perform a pre-anesthesia assessment, remain with the patient during the procedure, and supervise the recovery period — or we’re not involved at all, and will be busy taking care of patients elsewhere. That’s reality.

Watch who you call ‘paternalistic’

As a specialist in thoracic anesthesia, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to reflect about the importance of my job. As I watch a surgeon do a delicate dissection to peel lung cancer away from a major artery in the chest, I sometimes think how one tiny patient movement or cough could lead to catastrophic bleeding. It’s my job to make sure that doesn’t happen, and to keep the patient’s oxygen level safe while only one lung is being ventilated.

If I tell my patient in the morning that surgery has to be done under general anesthesia, I’m not being paternalistic. Nor does that decision depend on “the flexibility of the anesthesiologist”, as Ms. Hoffman would have it. Many operations — minor ones as well as major — can’t be done without general anesthesia.

Ms. Hoffman did my future patients no service by suggesting that being awake for surgery is necessarily better.(Please visit the American Society of Anesthesiologists website for accurate information about anesthesia.) Her simplistic views may mislead patients to believe that a Google search and a quick read of the New York Times will equip them to choose the anesthesia flavor of the day off a menu. If you want to push back against “authority figures”, it would be better to take that energy elsewhere and let your anesthesiologist and your surgeon — many of whom today are women — do our work.

Finally, I question the wisdom of allowing Esther Voynow, the patient featured in Ms. Hoffman’s story, to drive herself home after surgery on her right wrist. While she may have been perfectly awake, that isn’t the only skill involved in driving a car. If she had caused an accident, the surgeon and the hospital would have risked serious liability. The only good news about that questionable decision — there was no anesthesiologist involved.

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A version of this post appears as a Letter to the Editor in the New York Times.  

Six-year-old Caleb Sears:  His death was preventable

I’m not a pediatric anesthesiologist. Most of us in anesthesiology – even those who take care of children in the operating room or the ICU every day – probably will never give anesthesia to a child in a dentist’s or oral surgeon’s office. So why should we care what happens there? Dental anesthesia permits and regulations, after all, are under the authority of state dental boards, not medical boards.

The reason we should care is that healthy children have died under anesthesia in dental office settings, children like Marvelena Rady, age 3, and Caleb Sears, age 6. Unfortunately, they aren’t the first children to suffer serious complications or death in our state after dental procedures under sedation or general anesthesia, and unless California laws change, they won’t be the last.

In 2016, officers and past presidents of the California Society of Anesthesiologists (CSA) have made multiple trips to meetings of the Dental Board of California (DBC) to discuss pediatric anesthesia. We’ve provided detailed written recommendations about how California laws concerning pediatric dental anesthesia should be updated and revised. We’ve explained in testimony before the Dental Board, and in meetings with lawmakers, why we believe so strongly that the single “operator-anesthetist” model (currently practiced by dentists and oral surgeons in many states) cannot possibly be safe.

The DBC on December 30 published new recommendations for revision of California laws pertaining to pediatric dental anesthesia, posted them on its website, and sent them to the Senate Committee on Business, Professions, and Economic Development. But these recommendations ignored many of our concerns, and don’t go nearly far enough to protect children.

Further, the DBC cites statistics claiming that pediatric dental anesthesia is currently safe. But there is no database! The Dental Board has admitted to discarding records after review. They have reported on “only nine” recent cases involving death, ignoring other tragic cases of permanent brain damage and prolonged ICU admissions. Pediatricians in California recently surveyed 100 of their members and found that 29 of them — nearly one-third — knew of patients in their practices who had experienced adverse events in a dental office.

What is a single “operator-anesthetist”?

You may never have heard of a single “operator-anesthetist” because such a thing doesn’t exist in medical practice.

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Is it always wrong for a surgeon to book cases that will be done in two operating rooms during the same timeframe?

If you’ve paid much attention to the overheated commentary on social media since the Boston Globe published its investigative report, “Clash in the name of care“, you might easily conclude that the surgeon who runs two rooms ought to be drawn and quartered, or at least stripped of his or her medical license.

John Mandrola, MD, a Kentucky cardiologist who I’ll bet doesn’t spend a lot of time in operating rooms, weighed in on Medscape with a post called “The Wrongness of a Doctor Being in Two Places at Once“, accusing surgeons of hubris and greed.

Respectfully, I disagree.

The Globe’s story tells the dramatic tale of how a prominent surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital often scheduled two difficult spine operations at the same time. According to the Globe’s reporters, the surgeon typically moved back and forth between two operating rooms, performing key parts of each procedure but delegating some of the work to residents or fellows in training.

On one particular day, a complex case ended with a tragic outcome. The patient, a 41-year-old man, sustained spinal cord injury at the level of his neck, leaving him permanently unable to move his arms or legs. Another prominent MGH surgeon leaked details of the case to the press, and was summarily fired.

Of course, I have no special access to information about what goes on at the MGH, and can’t comment on the specific cases highlighted in the Globe’s report. But I’ve been giving anesthesia for a long time in first-class hospitals. On countless occasions, I’ve seen surgeons run two rooms, and have administered anesthesia to a patient in one of them.

Have I ever seen a patient come to harm because the surgeon scheduled concurrent cases?  No.

Have I ever been annoyed because a surgeon delayed the start of my patient’s case because of the demands of the case in the other room? Yes, but I always agreed with the decision to delay, and the wisdom behind it. If the surgeon is at a critical portion of the first case, we have no business starting the second case until the surgeon gives the go-ahead.

Have I ever been thankful that the surgeon had two rooms? Yes indeed. Here’s why.

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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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“Twilight” is a movie

How the advent of propofol — the drug associated with the deaths of Joan Rivers and Michael Jackson — changed the meaning of the term “sedation”

“Twilight! She has to have twilight,” insisted the adult daughter of my frail, 85-year-old patient. “She can’t have general anesthesia. She hasn’t been cleared for general anesthesia!”

We were in the preoperative area of my hospital, where my patient – brightly alert, with a colorful headband and bright red lipstick – was about to undergo surgery. Her skin had broken down on both legs due to poor circulation in her veins, and she needed skin grafts to cover the open wounds. She had a long list of cardiac and other health problems.

This would be a painful procedure, and there would be no way to numb the areas well enough to do the surgery under local anesthesia alone. My job was to figure out the best combination of anesthesia medications to get her safely through her surgery. Her daughter was convinced that a little sedation would be enough. I wasn’t so sure.

“Were you asleep the last time your doctor worked on your legs?” I asked the patient. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Completely asleep.”

“But she didn’t have general,” the daughter interrupted. “She just had twilight.”

Propofol revolutionized anesthesia care

Though “twilight” isn’t a medical term, people often use it to mean sedation or light sleep as opposed to general anesthesia. Most patients don’t want to be awake, even if their operation doesn’t require general anesthesia. They prefer an intravenous “cocktail” to make them oblivious to pain and unaware of anything that’s happening. Today, the main ingredient is likely to be an anesthetic medication called propofol.

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