Posts Tagged ‘Anesthesiology’

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.

How did we get here?

Let’s look all the way back to the second half of the 19th century, when the use of ether, chloroform, and nitrous oxide for surgical anesthesia spread rapidly. During the American Civil War, according to medical historian Shauna Devine, PhD, “Union records show that of more than 80,000 operations performed during the war, only 254 were done without some kind of anesthetic.” Most often, the anesthetic was chloroform. “The practice was for the operating physician’s assistant to place the chloroform on a piece of cotton or towel, which had been fashioned into a cone, and then placed over the patient’s nose and mouth, preferably in the open air.”(1)

Nurses or surgical assistants gave many of these anesthetics; most American physicians weren’t interested. One notable exception in the early 20th century was Ralph Waters, MD. He described his experience starting general practice in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1913:

“A few more or less full-time surgeons, who were looked upon as specialists, employed nurses to administer ether in the mornings at hospitals and act as office nurses in the afternoons. A majority of us, ‘occasional’ surgeons, depended upon each other to act as anesthetist as occasions demanded, or sometimes we ‘borrowed’ the nurse-technician of one of our more glamorous surgical colleagues.”(2)

Outcomes were variable and sometimes tragic. A true scientist, Dr. Waters devoted the rest of his career to anesthesiology, joined the faculty of the new medical school at the University of Wisconsin in 1927, and founded the first anesthesiology residency program. However, the model of anesthesia care delivery as the practice of nursing by then was well established in America. It took decades for academic anesthesiology programs to proliferate in the U.S., but the model in America continued to be one person at the bedside, giving medications and monitoring the patient – and that person could be either a physician or a nurse.

Practicing at the top of my license?

In a fascinating ASA Monitor article a few years ago, authors Marc Steurer, MD, DESA, and Michael Ganter, MD, DESA, examined differences in the delivery of anesthesia care in the U.S. compared with Europe. Among the chief disparities:

1. “Most European countries mandate two professionals to provide anesthesia (physician and assistant, e.g., certified registered anesthesia nurse): this means that an anesthesiologist and an assistant are both present during all critical events of the anesthesia (e.g., induction and emergence). In contrast, in the U.S., the anesthesia physician may provide anesthesia alone without a trained assistant.”

2. “In most western European countries, the clinical anesthesiologist is more longitudinally involved in patient care…Not only do anesthesiologists govern the prehospital portion of emergency medicine, but also once the intrahospital care begins. Together with the primary team, an anesthesiologist is usually involved in the care of the most ill medical and surgical patients in the hospital. Also in those settings, the anesthesiologist stays with the patient for the entire critical period and provides a very helpful continuum of care. In Europe there is also a heavy involvement of anesthesiologists in both medical and surgical ICUs. Additionally, operation room (O.R.) management, preoperative and pain clinics as well as services for palliative care have been a mainstay for even small anesthesia departments for a long time. This contrasts to most U.S. practices, where anesthesiologists have predominantly focused on the intraoperative and critical care period. The broader and more longitudinal scope of practice positions European colleagues well for the development of the field.”(3)

Very interesting. These European anesthesiologists are functioning as physicians.

As an American anesthesiologist, on the other hand, I am not practicing anywhere near the top of my license much of the time. There’s satisfaction in seeing all my syringes neatly labeled and lined up in a row, but is that how I should be using my time, energy, and education? Checking the circuit and filling the vaporizer? Our residents are expected to fetch their patients in the preop holding area and – single-handedly – push the gurneys down the hall to the operating rooms, no matter how large the patient or how small the resident. No doubt they feel that their average $200,000 in medical school debt is worth it in job satisfaction, and that being a physician is all they hoped it would be.

The ICU model of care

We need to do a total restructure of procedural care to function along the same lines as ICU care, where physicians direct the care of multiple patients. Pharmacists and registered nurses – sedation nurses and critical care nurses – could be involved as part of a cost-effective bedside care team, flexing the composition of the team to the complexity of the case. Cardiologists, GI and ER physicians supervise RNs giving sedation; why don’t we?

With today’s technologies, it’s possible to monitor multiple sites at the same time. I don’t have to stay tethered to my patient with a plastic earpiece and a length of IV tubing to listen for breath sounds. (Raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember those days.) Physicians who specialize in anesthesiology can be freed up to do actual physician work, putting our medical diagnostic skills to use and functioning as team leaders, not as pawns on the OR chessboard interchangeable with nurse anesthetists in the view of too many hospital administrators.

As American healthcare moves away from fee-for-service payment into a model of giving total care to populations, which appears inevitable, we have an opportunity to redesign anesthesiology. We don’t have to be bound by 1:4 ratios and other arbitrary rules tied to submitting bills for specific services to third-party payers.

We can figure out how to provide the right care to each patient at lower cost. We can allow anesthesiologists to function as doctors of medicine all the time, not just when there’s a crisis or when we’re not busy doing bedside nursing tasks in the operating room.

To me, that sounds like a far better job description.

              (Author’s note: This commentary was first published online in Anesthesiology News on September 8, 2021.)

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1. Devine S. Chloroform and the American Civil War: The art of practice and the science of medicine. PBS: Mercy Street Blog; online publication Feb 22, 2016. Accessed June 13, 2021.

2. Gillespie N. Ralph Milton Waters: A brief biography. British Journal of Anaesthesia: Vol 21 Issue 4, April 1949; 197-214. https://doi.org/10.1093/bja/21.4.197

3. Steurer M, Ganter M. Comparison and contrast of anesthesia practice in Europe and the U.S. ASA Monitor: December 2015, Vol 79; 18-20.

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.

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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?

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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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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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