Grief takes no holidays

I originally wrote this column just before Thanksgiving one year, and then updated it in 2012 after the tragic massacre of the Newtown first-graders. Now COVID-19 — and all the losses and grief that 2020 has brought — makes it only too relevant once again. For families who have lost a child, each holiday brings fresh grief, hurdles to face, and mourning for celebrations that will never happen.

The glittering commercialism and noisy cheer of any American holiday can be stressful for most of us. But for the parent who’s lost a child during the past year, facing the first of many holidays with an empty place at the table can make already unbearable grief so much worse.

No one in modern America expects a child to die.  Children only die in nineteenth century novels and third-world countries, or so we’d like to think.

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I enjoy how you deftly weave your personal experience and history with valuable insight into clinical treatment expectations and just plain wisdom on being human in your writing here.

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Is it time to unionize?

Remember the dark days of the pandemic in March and April, when the true risk of caring for COVID patients started to become clear?  Remember when you could be censured by a nursing supervisor or administrator for wearing a mask in public areas lest you frighten patients or visitors?

Right around then, a third-year resident at UCLA decided to wear a mask wherever he went in the hospital, as testing wasn’t readily available yet for patients, and visitors still had full access. Someone with a clipboard stopped him and said he couldn’t wear a mask in the hallways. The resident politely responded that yes, he could. Why? Because his union representative said so. The discussion ended there.

The resident enjoyed backup that his attendings lacked because all UCLA residents are members of the Committee on Interns and Residents/SEIU, a local of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). This union represents more than 17,000 trainees in six states and the District of Columbia.

As CMS threatens further pay cuts for anesthesiology services and other third-party payers are likely to follow suit, many attending anesthesiologists are asking:  Why can’t we form a union? Alternatively, why can’t the ASA function like a union and negotiate on our behalf?

Are you an employee?

You may be eligible to unionize if you are an employee without the power to “hire, fire, or make managerial decisions.” According to one estimate, more anesthesiologists are employed (55%) today than ever before, and this trend is accelerating as private practices are absorbed by large healthcare systems in mergers and acquisitions.

Hospitalists in Oregon elected in 2015 to form a union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. Primary care physicians employed by clinics in Washington State voted to be represented by the United Salaried Physicians and Dentists Union. Their vote to unionize was challenged by their employer on the grounds that some of their work was “supervisory”, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) upheld the physicians’ argument that their clinical supervision duties did not constitute managerial decisions.

The important distinction here is that within the ASA, some members would meet the NLRB’s definition of employees – even if they direct the clinical work of anesthesiologist assistants or nurse anesthetists – because they are directly employed by hospitals, health centers, or foundations. They could vote to unionize.

Other ASA members, whether they work within a group partnership or on a 1099 basis, would be classified as self-employed or as independent contractors, depending on exactly how their contracts are written. A third group – those in leadership and managerial roles, such as department chairs – would be considered supervisors or managers. All these are excluded from collective bargaining as a central provision of the National Labor Relations Act.

The ASA can advocate for fair physician payment, but an ASA attempt to negotiate payment rates on behalf of all its members would constitute “a horizontal agreement among competitors to fix payment” and would violate antitrust law.

Could we strike without a union?

Anesthesiologists and other physicians can act collectively without any union affiliation, and they have done so before. If no union is involved, it doesn’t matter whether or not they are employees.

In California during the 1960s and 70s, jury awards for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases rose exponentially, and malpractice insurance premiums rose too. By 1975, insurance companies either withdrew from the California market or raised anesthesia malpractice premiums by as much as 350%. (These events have been described in detail in an excellent column by Drs. Jane Moon and Mark Singleton, published on the website of the California Society of Anesthesiologists on May 13.)

Some anesthesiologists left the state or retired, and others decided to practice without coverage. In desperation, California anesthesiology leaders headed for Sacramento to demand legislative change. Anesthesiologists and surgeons in northern California began a dramatic protest by refusing for weeks to perform elective surgeries. Finally, on September 23, 1975, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the landmark Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA), which capped “pain and suffering” awards at $250,000. Despite repeated challenges, MICRA still stands.

At first MICRA was vilified as unconstitutional until the California Supreme Court ruled to uphold it. While the court deliberated, anesthesiologists and surgeons in Los Angeles began their own month-long work slowdown in January 1976, again refusing to perform elective operations. This strike was studied extensively to determine if patients were harmed as a consequence. Though an estimated 25% to 50% of physicians participated, patient mortality decreased overall, and surveys by UCLA and the LA Times showed no significant negative effect on access to care.

Yes, but is it ethical?

Physicians today in many specialties are deeply unhappy about working conditions, production pressure, and how powerless they feel. The electronic health record is associated with burnout and disconnection from direct patient care. Could unionization be the best way forward, now that more and more physicians are employees of large healthcare systems?

According to Dr. Eric Topol, cardiologist and author, the answer to that question is yes. He believes it’s high time for a “new organization of doctors that has nothing to do with the business of medicine and everything to do with promoting the health of patients.” In his article titled “Why Doctors Should Organize”, published in the New Yorker last year, Dr. Topol asked, “Who will be in charge of our health as we move forward – doctors or their managers?”

The trouble with the word “union” is that it evokes the image of strikers picketing for better pay. The public will never sympathize with physicians if payment is our only cause. But patients and physicians might get behind “industrial action” in support of more time spent with patients, more and better PPE, fewer hours wasted with poorly designed electronic records – as long as patients are guaranteed that emergency coverage is always available.

Maybe it’s time to try a different approach. The right to organize and strike is supported by the United Nations and international law. Physician work stoppages or slowdowns can be conducted ethically, without patient harm.

Here’s one appealing idea for collective action. Take full care of the patients but document only the clinical care. Don’t waste your time ticking all the irrelevant boxes in the electronic record, which is a tool for billing and compliance-checking, not for patient care.

This kind of collective action could get some real attention from health systems and large employers because it would affect their billing and revenue. They are the ones with the size and clout to negotiate better contracts with third-party payers, to demand better electronic health records, and to push back against regulation creep. We love to blame insurers, but employers share responsibility for physician exploitation and demoralization. As the AMA Journal of Ethics has stated, “It is morally acceptable for physicians to unionize and employ collective action, including striking, as long as patients’ best interests are their reason for doing so.”

Where do I sign?

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This article originally appeared in the December 2020 edition of the ASA Monitor

5 COMMENTS

Short answer - Yes and No. The system needs a change and the agencies that play the "controlling role" need to be systemically audited for fraud. Unfortunately, this is an impossible task, but luckily good docs will always exist and help heal no matter what the challenge. Some great points there by Dr. Obrecht. Thank you!

Eduardo

Thanks again for another useful article, now related to such hot topic. I'm anesthesiologist from Argentina, a very 'unionized' nation. Unions often end in corrupt practices, as Neal Koss wrote in a comment above. BUT it would be interesting to study Buenos Aires and Argentina Anesthesia Society and National Federation Society history and wide activities: without oficially being a Union, it developed the only well paid and scientifically and teaching society and medical specialty, an unavoidable reference to any other medical specialization in terms of better ...Read More

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Practice without fear

This article, with advice for residents about the future of anesthesiology, was published first in the October 2020 issue of Anesthesiology News

You may be weary of being told that our profession is facing a time of unprecedented threat – from third-party payers, from the government, from non-physician practitioners. You’ve heard it so often that your brain is tuning it out. Is the threat level exaggerated for dramatic effect? Is it better just to go on with your day and not think about it at all?

That would be a mistake. The real question is:  How should we deal with the upcoming “market adjustment” that almost certainly will result in lower anesthesiologist compensation? In the face of gloomy reality checks, how can we promote pride in our profession and recruit the best medical students? How can we continue research that will reduce risk and improve outcomes? How do we avoid becoming irrelevant or extinct, like Kodak, Xerox, Sears, and now Hertz? It’s time to face the future.

The threats are real

Unfortunately, the “unprecedented threat” claim is all too real. Department chairs everywhere  worry that they will not be able to maintain the compensation rates that anesthesiologists have enjoyed up to now. Why?

The Medicare Trust Fund is expected to become insolvent as soon as 2024. The chair of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), Michael Chernew, PhD, recently commented, “We are very dedicated to finding payment models to promote efficient delivery of care.” No one could possibly think this will mean anything other than lower payments to physicians.

Scope-of-practice expansion is gaining ground. On March 30, CMS issued an array of “temporary” waivers and new rules, waiving the requirement that a nurse anesthetist must work under the supervision of a physician. How likely are these new rules to be reversed under a new administration, whether Republican or Democratic? Whether or not you live in an “opt-out” state may not matter in the near future.

Hospitals were in trouble even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have gone bankrupt; others are merging with larger health systems. At present, around 80% of hospitals subsidize their anesthesiology departments to the tune of millions of dollars each year. Realistically, can these subsidies continue? Probably not. Will hospital administrators seriously consider cheaper staffing models for delivering anesthesia care? Probably yes.

Make yourself indispensable

First, it would be wise to assume that a downward “market adjustment” to anesthesiologist compensation is coming. Plan for it now. Stop yourself from spending to the full extent of your income, and put away all you can in a tax-deferred retirement account.

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Dr Srinivasan

Dear Dr Sibert Protocolised medicine , cookbook recipes is not a shortcut to clinical experience gained from years of practice. In clinical practice we used to have mentors, regional leaders who had all the answers to clinical questions that are unique to each individual patient. Each hospital has unique set of surgeons, cases and anesthesia expertise. Can this Anesthesia expertise in one Hospital chain be standardized? Secondly can that experience then be transferred over to another practice? I do locums ...Read More

karen

Dear Adel Bishai, You pose an interesting question. No, I don't think medical students would need to commit to a specific track on day 1, unless perhaps the student already had a PhD and was certain of wanting to enter a clinical or translational research track. Or if a student already had an MBA and was certain of interest in healthcare management. I would think of it more as perhaps committing to a track at the end of the CA-1 or early in the CA-2 ...Read More

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How are two-career households with children — let alone single-parent households — going to manage with daycare centers and schools closed, perhaps for a long time to come? What damage will this do to career progress and earning potential if one parent must cut back on work? Will childcare demands inevitably delay or derail partnership or academic promotion?

When I was a young mother — my two youngest children are only 17 months apart — life revolved around childcare arrangements. As newly fledged attendings, my husband and I both wanted to practice full time, and with the confidence of youth we assumed we could make it work. For a time, we had a live-in nanny. As the babies turned into children old enough for school, we still needed a full-time nanny for drop-off, pick-up, and the days when the kids were sick and needed to stay home. We accepted the fact that a third or more of our joint income would be spent on childcare and other support services so that we could both keep working as physicians and stay sane.

But what if there had been no school?

Today, it’s hard to fathom the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on families trying to find solutions to their childcare needs with the closure of private and public schools alike. Who’s going to watch, let alone educate, the kids? A nanny, no matter how conscientious and loving, may not be a good educator. When one parent has to work less in order to supervise learning at home, often that job falls to the mother. What happens to her career?

The vicious downturn cycle

As of early July, the Census Bureau estimates that half of American adults live in households that lost job income this spring. Many anesthesiologists lost income too during the periods in March and April when elective surgery in many states went on hiatus to keep beds open for COVID-19 patients.

In California, the CSA surveyed members and found that 74% reported experiencing financial hardship this spring, with medium and small private practices faring worse than academic departments. There was no overall difference in perceived economic hardship between men and women in anesthesiology, though women reported being furloughed or given involuntary vacation more often than men: 41% vs. 26% of survey respondents.

When people lose their jobs or work remotely, demand for childcare services plummets. The National Association for the Education of Young Children reports that on average, enrollment in childcare centers is down by 67%. Many that were operating on a slim margin have already gone out of business. The centers that remain open to serve essential workers are facing huge additional expenses for staff, PPE, cleaning supplies, and duplicate equipment and toys to allow cleaning after each use. At least 40% of the remaining childcare centers are likely to go out of business unless significant government assistance arrives soon. People trying to return to work after lockdown — in anesthesiology or any other field — are having trouble finding high-quality early childcare.

“It’s much harder for me to find safe childcare to be able to work,” said one woman anesthesiologist in a private conversation. Another in academic practice commented, “It’s very stressful for the mom!” A third woman is worried because her current au pair leaves in August but the new one may not be able to enter the country due to the hold on visas.

Many of us assumed optimistically that the school closures of the spring would be short-lived, and that September would mark the end of “learning from home”. That doesn’t appear likely. California’s Governor Newsom announced on July 17 that most California public and private schools will not reopen when the academic year begins.

In some states, elite private schools have more latitude to reopen than public schools as they can afford to reduce class size and adapt to strict infection control regulations recommended by the CDC. But many private religious schools that serve less wealthy families were in financial trouble even before the full effect of the pandemic hit. The Roman Catholic Boston archdiocese, for example, has already shuttered 10% of its schools permanently. No one knows yet how many students actually will be able to return to school this fall.

Even if schools reopen where state government permits, it isn’t clear that teachers will agree to return to work. In a July 19 New York Times op-ed, a teacher wrote that she is willing to take a bullet for her students, but exposing herself and her family to COVID-19 would be like asking her to take that bullet home. “It isn’t fair to ask me to be part of a massive, unnecessary science experiment,” she wrote. “I am not a human research subject. I will not do it.”

In anesthesia, you can’t “phone it in”

What are women in anesthesiology going to do if schools don’t reopen? If your job is purely administrative, or you can run a preop clinic using telemedicine, you might be able to work remotely. But you can’t “phone it in” if your job is delivering anesthesia to humans.

“I don’t see how this school year is going to work,” said one woman anesthesiologist. “It’s a hot mess.”

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Some great insight here for sure! This is especially very true - "Until we collectively support the common-sense public health measures that will control the pandemic, we risk the collapse of our economy and our educational system, and the wellbeing of millions of children who need all the benefits of school. Women’s careers will be part of the collateral damage." I've found most professions where women play a key role badly affected by the pandemic, but well in these times, who isn't?

Dr Srinivasan

Excellent post again. I applaud all the women out there. Particularly moms who spend time with their children in the formative years. Women do this out of unconditional love for their children. It is important to acknowledge this fact. May be full time anesthesia jobs should be made more flexible /2-3 work day weeks, guaranteed fixed hrs schedule, so that work life balance is achieved, at academic institutions and at community hospitals. Locums is another option where you work ...Read More

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It’s early May in Los Angeles, and dystopian reality is here – storefronts boarded up; people (if they’re out at all) wearing sinister-looking black facemasks. Inside the hospital, everyone wears a mask all the time, no one gathers in clusters to chat, and even the tail-wagging therapy dogs must be sheltering at home because they’re nowhere to be seen.

One change I didn’t see coming was a metamorphosis in airway management.

Guidelines developed for the intubation of COVID-19 patients are evolving into the new normal whether a patient is infected or not. This is even more remarkable since anesthesiologists consider ourselves experts in airway management, and many of us (how can I put this kindly?) hold firmly to our opinions. Who would have thought old habits could change? But airway management this year is different and scarier. Remember when we didn’t think of it as hazardous duty?

Who still “tests” the airway?

Consider the question of whether to “test the airway” before giving any neuromuscular blocker (NMB) during a routine anesthesia induction. Some of us believe that it offers a measure of safety, because you can back out and wake the patient up if you can’t ventilate. Those (like me) who don’t do it quote studies that demonstrate more effective mask ventilation with larger tidal volumes after NMB, and point out that if you can’t ventilate, most people will give NMB anyway.

That controversy seems to have gone into hiding. Today, the guidelines for intubating a patient with proven or suspected COVID-19 recommend rapid-sequence induction (RSI) to reduce the risk of the patient coughing and spraying the area with aerosolized coronavirus. No one in that situation seems worried about testing the airway.

What about the patient who is asymptomatic, and has a recent negative COVID-19 test result? There is legitimate concern that the patient could still be in the early, asymptomatic stage of infection, and the incidence of false negative results from COVID-19 testing could be as high as 30%. By that logic, we should treat every patient as a PUI, and perform RSI on all comers. It would be interesting to survey anesthesia professionals and see how many now perform RSI as their default approach. Certainly, residents now ask me on nearly every case if the plan is RSI, and I hear from colleagues at other institutions that my experience isn’t unique.

What about extubation?

If we don’t want coughing on intubation in the era of COVID-19, logically we wouldn’t want it on extubation either. Awake extubation, especially in the hands of novices, can include an alarming display of coughing and struggling by the patient, accompanied by cries of “Open your eyes! Take a deep breath!” by the person at the head of the table. More coughing follows as the tube comes out. In contrast, a recent review article on the care of COVID-19 patients advises removing the endotracheal tube “as smoothly as is feasible”. For our colleagues in the United Kingdom who are accustomed to deep extubation, this is routine. In America, it isn’t.

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