My patient and his wife didn’t understand that an anesthesiologist is a physician, despite his having been cared for by anesthesiologists during past procedures. They thought only CRNAs give anesthesia. What are we doing so wrong with our messaging, and how can we fix it?

One recent afternoon in the GI endoscopy suite (not my favorite place to work, but that’s a topic for another day), I walked up to the bedside of my next patient and introduced myself as I always do.

“Hi,” I said, holding up my name badge for the patient and his wife to see. “I’m Dr. Sibert.  I’m with the anesthesiology department and I’ll be looking after you today.”

The patient was an otherwise healthy man in his mid-30s, having his fifth endoscopy this year for a chronic though serious problem. My questions were few and he understood very well what was about to happen.

The consent process concluded, I asked if the couple had any other questions. The wife did.

“You’re a doctor when you’re not giving anesthesia?” she asked.

Wait. What?

 I’m seldom speechless, but this question took me by surprise. “Why yes,” I said, unsure how to respond.

“You’re a doctor, and you give anesthesia,” the patient’s wife said, making sure she heard correctly.  “Usually we’ve had CRNAs.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m a doctor, and I give anesthesia all the time. I’m actually an MD who specializes in anesthesiology.”

The patient’s wife seemed slightly embarrassed but happy to acquire this new (to her) information — that doctors give anesthesia too, and that anesthesiology is a specialty practiced by physicians.

“So it must take a lot more training,” she mused. I confirmed that was true, and outlined the years of medical school, residency, and often fellowship training that we undertake to become fully qualified.

Since the patient and his wife seemed interested, I explained that there’s more to anesthesiology than the brief sedations he had experienced in the GI suite. I explained a little about my own specialty — thoracic anesthesia — and the challenge of ventilating each lung separately for lung operations. I went on to mention some of the other subspecialties including pediatric and cardiac anesthesiology.

At the mention of cardiac anesthesiology, a light bulb seemed to go off in the patient’s mind. “I think I had a cardiac anesthesiologist one time,” he said.

At that point, the GI team was ready to begin his procedure, so there was no more time to chat.  I gave the patient’s wife my business card with my title:  Clinical Professor of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine. We headed to the procedure room. The circulating nurse and I hooked up his monitors; I started the propofol infusion. I watched his breathing and vital signs until the endoscopy was completed, turned the propofol off, and watched him wake up.

So many questions

This brief encounter left me with so many unanswered questions, and the unhappy feeling that no matter how much we may have done to try to explain the profession of anesthesiology to the lay public, clearly we’re not getting through.

This patient and his wife were not uneducated or economically disadvantaged. This was not their first encounter with the healthcare system; he had undergone four prior procedures at our teaching hospitals this year. If he received care from nurse anesthetists, they would have been under the medical direction of anesthesiologists. California is an opt-out state, but our health system does not permit nurse anesthetists to practice unsupervised.

How could the patient and his wife believe that all his prior anesthetic care had been given by nurse anesthetists?

Gender bias?

 My first hypothesis was that perhaps the patient had been taken care of by a mix of female anesthesiologists and female nurse anesthetists, all wearing the same nauseatingly pale green scrubs. It could be hard to tell one person from another — let alone remember who’s who — in the fast-moving assembly line of an outpatient GI endoscopy suite.

But when I looked up the patient’s previous records, that wasn’t the case at all.  Here’s the roster of anesthesia personnel for his four prior procedures, in chronologic order from first to most recent:

Female anesthesiologist and male nurse anesthetist

Male anesthesiologist, solo

Male anesthesiologist and male nurse anesthetist

Female anesthesiologist, solo

It turned out that the male anesthesiologist who worked solo was indeed a cardiac anesthesiologist, exactly as the patient recalled after our conversation jogged his memory.

So the total number of anesthesiologists who cared for this patient before I did was four — two women and two men — and the total number of nurse anesthetists was two, both men. Yet the impression he and his wife retained was that CRNAs gave him anesthesia. What can we make of that?

First names??

I’m sympathetic to the kindly impulse that can lead some of us to introduce ourselves by first names instead of using the title “Doctor”. We don’t want to seem elitist in the eyes of patients or staff. But is this a good idea?

There is evidence that reduction of “hierarchy” can improve patient safety by making it feel less threatening for anyone junior — whether in terms of age, professional rank, experience, or education — to question what is happening or about to happen. That’s the theory behind programs such as “Team Strategies and Tools to Enhance Performance and Patient Safety (TeamSTEPPS®)”.  Timothy Clapper, PhD, writing about the experience with TeamSTEPPS at Weill Cornell Medical College, states: “Healthcare workers may not speak up, even when it could make a difference for patient safety because they do not want to be wrong, are unsure, or do not want to hurt someone’s feelings.”

However, Dr. Clapper also notes: “From a communication standpoint, hierarchies are beneficial for healthcare teams, especially when time and clarity is an issue. Team members prefer to have a clear leader on their team. An effective leader operating in a suitable level of the hierarchy can quickly assign tasks and roles, especially during emergent cases to ensure task coverage and minimize delays. In healthcare systems, physicians regularly take on leadership roles and decision-making responsibilities.”

For physicians to assume those leadership roles, the key is for each person in the room to understand who among them is a physician and who is not.

If everyone on the team is introduced on a first-name basis, it may not be clear at all who is who, and which personnel are in leadership positions. This may be especially true when some people on the team are youthful trainees who rotate on and off teams in the course of their training. Is “Annabelle” an attending physician, a resident, a nurse, a nurse anesthetist, a physician assistant, a medical student, or a technician?  Confusion is almost inevitable when you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and confusion can be lethal in a crisis.

First and last names??

Even when both first and last names are used, without the title “Doctor” in front of the name, a listener may not appreciate that the speaker is a physician.

The Editor of the ASA Monitor, Steven Shafer, MD, wrote a column in the August 2021 issue, explaining that he introduces himself to patients by saying, “Hello, I’m Steve Shafer. I’m the anesthesiologist who will be caring for you today.” He assumes that using the term “anesthesiologist” is sufficient to communicate the message that he is a physician with subspecialty training in anesthesiology.

This may work for many patients, but not all.  A recent survey by the American Medical Association found that 70% of patients recognized an anesthesiologist as a physician, 22% did not, and 8% were unsure. Several years ago, in the interest of truth in advertising, the ASA decided to champion the term “physician anesthesiologist”. Unfortunately, “physician anesthesiologist” is clumsy and difficult to say out loud without tripping over your own tongue. Does anyone use it in everyday conversation?

Which brings me back to my patient and his wife, and the fact that my self-introduction as “Dr. Sibert” created a moment of clarity that had been missing before.

What could have happened in the previous encounters?

Perhaps the anesthesiologists introduced themselves as Dr. Shafer does.

Perhaps the anesthesiologists who were supervising nurse anesthetists met the patient only briefly in the procedure room right before the case started, while the actual preop interviews were done by the CRNAs. This approach enables the anesthesiologist to duck into the room and quickly tick off the attestation boxes for preop assessment, assessment prior to induction, and presence at induction all at the same moment. However, in this scenario it’s unlikely that the patient will remember meeting the anesthesiologist at all.

Perhaps the term “CRNA” is just easier than “anesthesiologist” to say and remember.

Perhaps nurse anesthetists are simply better at promoting their brand.

We need to acknowledge a problem

Whatever the reason, I think we need to acknowledge that there is a problem. We can’t have it both ways:  abandoning formal titles and then complaining that no one knows we’re physicians. We can’t assume that our profession is going to get the respect it deserves if we’re reluctant to refer to ourselves as “Doctor”.

We can’t delegate the responsibility for doing the preoperative assessment to nurse anesthetists and then wonder why patients don’t know that an anesthesiologist was involved in their care.

We shouldn’t downplay our critical role in the operating room by introducing ourselves with our first names. Everyone on the team needs to know who the attending anesthesiologist is. This may be even more important if the attending anesthesiologist is young or female or both, and doesn’t necessarily look the part of a senior physician. During the time-out in the operating room, my standard response is, “I’m Dr. Sibert, with anesthesiology.”

With patients, I routinely introduce myself to patients as “Dr. Sibert”, trying as best I can to convey a smile behind my mask. I explain if I’m supervising a nurse anesthetist or a resident, or if I’ll be taking care of the patient by myself. I give out my business card liberally, making sure that my patients have a way to contact me after surgery if any issue should arise, and at the same time making it clear that I’m a board-certified physician who specializes in anesthesiology.

I have a hard time imagining Dr. Michael DeBakey in his prime ever introducing himself as “Mike”, and I won’t be saying, “Hi, I’m Karen,” anytime soon either.  All of us in anesthesiology have worked long years to become the physicians we are today. We need to own it, or else stop wondering why the public doesn’t know who we are.

(Author’s note:  This commentary and the accompanying illustration appeared first online in the November issue of the ASA Monitor on October 27, 2021.)

4 COMMENTS

Sigrid Vogelpohl

As a nurse in a small hospital where everybody used to know everybody else, it wasn't an issue until staff turnover and part-time and temp staff has become more common. As a close to retirement nurse, I have caught myself thinking that some person certainly looks too young to be fully trained medical professional and certainly not a physician. I love badge buddies so that staff and patients clearly know who they are working with or addressing. It makes it easy to identify staff as ...Read More
I've also come to the conclusion that the hierarchy of the hospital is not at all evident to many otherwise well educated patients. The titles "physician assistant" and "nurse practictioner", for example, are not very well understood and can lead to some confusion.

Read All 4 COMMENTS

Nurses argue that they can perform many hands-on tasks of anesthesia care just as well as we can. So why are we still doing those tasks?

As we orient our brand-new, fresh-faced CA-1 residents to the operating room each year, I ask this question. Has anyone explained to them that much of what they’ll need to learn in the first couple of months is how to be a nurse?

We watch them struggle to draw up propofol into a syringe without spraying white foam all over themselves. We emphasize the critical difference between a surgeon’s order of 5000 units of heparin to be given SQ or IV. We teach residents how to inject medications into line ports using sterile technique, how to label a syringe correctly, and how to chart IV fluids and urine output.

Is this why they went to medical school?

Before a mob assembles with torches and pitchforks, let me be clear: there is much more to learn beyond these nursing and pharmacy tasks on the road to becoming a qualified anesthesiologist. But why are we still doing these tasks when other physicians don’t do likewise?

Do our intensivist colleagues mix up and inject antibiotics? Do our cardiology colleagues load infusion pumps with potassium or magnesium drips? Of course not. That would be a waste of their time and education.

It’s time to redesign anesthesia care delivery. We should be charting the course, not executing every change of sail. We should be performing the diagnostic and intellectual work of physicians all the time, not just some of the time. If we don’t, we shouldn’t be surprised if we continue to lose control over the future of our profession. It’s way too expensive to pay a physician to do the tasks of a nurse. Read the Full Article

3 COMMENTS

Asher

“Tell me you realize we need universal health care in America, without telling me you realize we need universal healthcare in America.” What you describe is obviously a necessary evolution of an anesthesiologist’s workflow but cannot occur when the healthcare system is for profit and not accessible to all. A system driven by profit and is currently broken. How can we work to make these changes feasible when most of us are just trying to make a living, pay back student loans and ...Read More

NRM

Absolutely agree with you! Our specialty needs a paradigm shift. Without it, we are relegating another generation to practice below their talents and potential.

Read All 3 COMMENTS

Forget the pandemic, say hospital executives. What have you done for us lately?

There was a time, at the peak of the pandemic, when many of us believed that anesthesiologists finally would get the public recognition and respect we’ve earned – at a painful price – for our front-line work in airway management and critical care.

Some anesthesiologists like Ajit Rai, MD, a pain medicine specialist in Fresno, California, even boarded flights to New York last spring to help hospitals overrun with critically ill COVID patients. News reports nationwide celebrated these physicians as “healthcare heroes”.

That was then.

Today hospitals are struggling to maintain their financial stability in the face of the revenue hit they took in 2020 when elective case volumes plummeted. Total knee and hip replacements were down by 53 and 42 percent, respectively, compared with 2019 numbers, and even cardiac catheterization cases were 24 percent fewer. At least 47 hospitals closed or declared bankruptcy in 2020, with more likely to follow.

The American Hospital Association estimates that hospital revenue in 2021 could be down anywhere from $53 billion to $122 billion from pre-pandemic levels. Hospitals are still dealing with supply chain and labor market disruption, paying premium prices for traveling ICU nurses, and facing the high cost of treating resource-intensive COVID patients.

When a hospital is desperate to stay afloat, administrators are going to look anywhere they can for ways to cut costs. Subsidies to anesthesiology groups are in their crosshairs.

Read the Full Article

9 COMMENTS

Tom Thomas, MD

This is an excellent article. However, I do have one issue with the section under "Zone Coverage." It is a misconception that one can "supervise" an unlimited number of CRNAs/CAAs, simply bill cases with the QZ modifier and not affect reimbursement. Unless one practices in one of the 17 "opt out" states, a CRNA/CAA must be supervised by a physician, either an anesthesiologist or the proceduralist. (I am ignoring the temporary rule during the COVID crisis). For proper Medicare billing, ...Read More

Brad V.

The rod of Asclepius serpent has been eating its tail in anesthesiology for decades. Move along; nothing new here.

Read All 9 COMMENTS

If you think about scope-of-practice creep at all, you may think immediately of the advocacy efforts so many physicians have made to preserve physician-led care and discourage independent practice by nurse anesthetists or physician assistants.

You may not have paid as much attention to the current momentum to grant independent practice to nurse practitioners, or NPs, nationwide.

In addition to the District of Columbia, 28 states allow NPs full practice authority to treat and prescribe without formal oversight. Half of these states grant NPs full practice authority as soon as they gain their licenses; the other half allow it after the NP practices with physician oversight for a period of time.

My home state, California, is one of the states that has always required physician oversight. Last fall, however, Governor Newsom signed a bill, Assembly Bill 890, that will allow NPs to practice independently after they have completed a three-year transition period, practicing under physician supervision.

That was when I started to worry.

Preop assessments that make us laugh or cry

No doubt everyone who practices anesthesiology or surgery has encountered preoperative medical assessments, H & Ps, or “clearance” notes that have been so far off the mark they’re laughable. I’m not just talking about the three-word “cleared for surgery” note scrawled on a prescription pad. I recall in particular:

A consultation at a VA hospital that “cleared” my cirrhotic patient with massive ascites and coagulopathy for his inguinal hernia repair under spinal anesthesia but not general.

Read the Full Article

NO COMMENTS

Read All NO COMMENTS

            How the ACGME and ABA are infantilizing resident training

Not long ago, my patient in a complex thoracic case developed progressive bradycardia followed by a malignant-looking multifocal atrial arrhythmia that didn’t generate any blood pressure.

“Get out some epinephrine!” I said to my resident, who was standing closer than I was to the drug cart. The resident quickly drew up a milligram of epi, but then paused. I could almost see the thought bubble overhead: “Should I print out a label? Put a tamper-proof cap on the syringe?”

The resident – perhaps spurred on by the look in my eyes – made the right call, pushing epi immediately into the IV line and not stopping first to clean the injection port with alcohol for 15 seconds. The patient responded right away with return of sinus rhythm and a blood pressure consistent with life.

This brief but intense drama led me to ponder (not for the first time) whether the protocols and rules that infuse our days are improving safety or leading to paralysis when decisions must be made. Sometimes you have to act as you think best, accepting the possibility that your action may be vulnerable to criticism.

Even if you follow the protocol today, tomorrow it may change. Wearing masks all the time at the start of the COVID pandemic was considered a bad idea – until it wasn’t. On average, 20% of the recommendations in clinical practice guidelines don’t survive intact through even one review – on the next updated version, they’re downgraded, reversed, or omitted.

Today’s resident education process isn’t helping residents face the inevitable ambiguity of medical decision-making. No wonder residents get rattled when they find that one attending does things far differently from another. The ACGME and ABA are turning residency training into an infantilizing experience. Residents are used to studying to the test, and on the test there’s only one right answer.

Anesthesiology trivial pursuit

I don’t envy residents today. When I peer over their heads in the OR to see what they’re looking at on the computer screen, it’s often a multiple-choice question in preparation for the ABA basic exam, which looms over their first two years like an executioner’s axe. Never once has the question had any relevance to the patient or the case. The question itself seems to be part of an anxiety-ridden trivia game, geared toward testing the ability to prep for the test, not the gain of medical knowledge with any connection to patient care.

Read the Full Article

3 COMMENTS

A must-read article for those who are into anesthesiology. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Eduardo

I fully agree with you. Too much screens and too little contact with real things. Thanks!

Read All 3 COMMENTS

X
¤