Archive for the ‘Anesthesiology’ Category

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

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.

Read the Full Article

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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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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Elegy for giant conventions

ANESTHESIOLOGY 2019 may have been the last old-school, convention-size, professional meeting I will ever attend. I could be wrong, but it may mark the end of an era. Disruptive change to the convention business model was inevitable, though hastened by COVID-19. On June 5, ASA leadership announced that the 2020 annual meeting will be virtual — for the first time, but perhaps not the last. Does this news herald disaster or opportunity?

When I was a resident attending my first ASA annual meeting, the huge convention center struck me as the mother lode of anesthesiology knowledge, with lectures and workshops that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Today, I wonder why I would travel across the country to attend a refresher course lecture in a freezing-cold meeting room, when I can watch similar content on YouTube or VuMedi for free, in comfort?

Professional associations could take this moment to move decisively into the video/podcast market. Speakers could record their own lectures, pro-con debates, and panel discussions, and societies like ASA and CSA could post all the content on proprietary video and podcast channels for members to access year-round. Think of the money we could save in travel and the cost of renting convention centers. Giant conventions at the ASA level are limited to only a few cities, most of which wouldn’t be my choice to visit.

The future of exhibit halls?

Corporate interest in buying exhibit space at anesthesiology meetings was fading fast, even before COVID-19. Why pay to send people and equipment to exhibit halls when mergers and acquisitions have centralized all the purchasing power? As recently as ten years ago, many anesthesiologists were able to influence which laryngoscopes or epidural kits their departments would order. Today, people who negotiate purchasing contracts typically work in the central offices of health systems, not in operating rooms. Today, most of us can do little more than complain about our inadequate stock of video laryngoscopes or the maddening electronic health record we’re compelled to use.

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