Posts Tagged ‘Medicine’

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.

The Dark Side of Quality

Nobody stands up to argue against quality and value in healthcare. You might as well argue against motherhood, or puppies. Yet many physicians are inherently skeptical of definitions of “quality” that are imposed from above, whether by outside evaluators like The Joint Commission, or (worse) by the government.

There’s good reason for skepticism. Some of the “evidence” behind “evidence-based medicine” has turned out to be flawed, tainted by financial conflict of interest, or outright fraudulent. Any experienced physician knows that there are fads in healthcare just as there are in fashion, and today’s evidence-based medicine may be tomorrow’s malpractice. Let’s take a closer look at what’s really going on in the world of quality metrics, and why it matters if payments to you and your hospital are increasingly linked to how you score.

Surgical Site Infections

The financial toll of surgical site infections (SSIs) is huge, estimated in the U.S. at more than $10 billion a year.(1)  A recent retrospective review from the Veterans Affairs Surgical Quality Improvement Program showed that the majority of SSIs are diagnosed only after hospital discharge, and that 57% will require hospital readmission within 30 days.(2)  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) stopped paying for care related to SSIs in 2008 by designating them as “never events”, or non-reimbursable serious hospital-acquired conditions. Now SSIs are part of a long list of hospital-acquired conditions that can result in reduced CMS payments to hospitals, and will bring further reduction in payments over the next several years with the implementation of “value-based purchasing”. More than 1400 hospitals will see their Medicare payments cut by as much as 1.25% this year–a margin that could spell financial disaster for hospitals already struggling.(3)

You may already be among the more than 50% of anesthesiologists who have been reporting performance metrics to the Physician Quality Reporting System (PQRS), which is administered by CMS. When the system started in 2007, CMS offered a bonus payment of 1.5% for successful participation, but that soon shrank to 0.5% and will be discontinued after 2014. Starting in 2015, CMS will impose a 1.5% payment reduction for physicians who do not participate in PQRS, and will push the pay cut to 2% in 2016.

If you participate in PQRS reporting, you know that two of the measures that anesthesiologists report are directly aimed at SSI prevention: perioperative temperature management, and antibiotic timing. PQRS measure #193 specifies that the patient must receive “active warming” or have a temperature above 36C recorded within 30 minutes before or 15 minutes after anesthesia end time. Measure #30 specifies that prophylactic parenteral antibiotics must be administered within one hour before skin incision. Compliance with these two measures isn’t hard to achieve, though no one seems to question the cost to the American healthcare system of all those forced-air warming blankets and machines, or ask why giving antibiotics 61 minutes instead of 59 minutes before skin incision is an automatic “fail”.

But have CMS threats and PQRS compliance done any good? A just-published editorial in Anesthesiology concluded: “Despite early efficacy literature establishing the value of specific antibiotic timing and active warming, repeated large database analyses have not observed robust effectiveness across hundreds of hospitals.”(4)   Simply put, as many of us have noticed in our own hospitals, SSI rates have remained about the same.

Read the Full Article

We were startled to learn recently that Sheridan Healthcare Inc., a physician services company based in Florida, has bought one of the largest private anesthesiology group practices in California, the Medical Anesthesia Consultants Medical Group Inc. (MAC) of San Ramon.

The deal, which closed November 14, is Sheridan’s first in California, and “provides a platform that will accelerate our expansion in the California marketplace,” said John Carlyle, Sheridan’s CEO, in a recent statement.

By all accounts, MAC is a well-respected and highly successful anesthesia practice, with more than 100 physicians—shareholders, non-shareholders, and independent contractors—who provide anesthesiology services to five hospitals and 23 ambulatory surgery settings in northern California.  So why did this group decide to sell?

Was this a hostile takeover, or did hospital administrators force the group’s hand?  Not at all, says a senior partner in the MAC group (who prefers not to be named).  The senior shareholders actively sought a purchaser, hired an investment bank to broker the deal, and voted unanimously to approve it.  Apparently, there are no plans yet to hire nurse anesthetists or change the MD-only composition of the group.  Hospital administrators didn’t instigate the sale but all supported it, the anesthesiologist said. “For us right now, it looked like the right thing to do.”

It’s doubtful that the non-shareholders in MAC are quite as enthusiastic.

Read the Full Article

New research just out in the journal Psychology and Aging says pessimists live longer and healthier lives. If this is true, then contemplating the future of anesthesiology ought to make us immortal, because our professional prospects don’t look bright.  As we teach residents to do what we’ve always done, shouldn’t we ask ourselves honestly if we’re training them for a future that doesn’t exist?

Especially here in California, it seems likely that our predominantly MD-provided, fee-for-service practice of anesthesiology will not survive indefinitely, and perhaps not for long.  We can blame the reelection of President Obama and the passage of the Affordable Care Act if we like, but the reality is that market forces were eventually going to catch up with us whether or not Mitt Romney went to the White House.

In a way, we’re the victims of our own success; we’ve made anesthesia so safe that everyone thinks there’s nothing to it. But that’s exactly the point.  Technology has indeed made anesthesia much safer.  When I started learning anesthesia, pulse oximetry and end-tidal CO2 monitoring were new to the market, unproven, and scarce. Now they’re everywhere. We fear the difficult airway less now that we have video laryngoscopes readily at hand.

Since technology is so much better, why do so many of us still believe that every case requires the costly expertise of a board-certified anesthesiologist?  Read the Full Article

The unsolved problem of MD + PR

In my hospital’s preoperative area, upright on her bed, sat an unhappy middle-aged lady who needed an operation to treat complications from her previous bariatric surgery.  She hadn’t lost weight and clearly was feeling discouraged about practically everything.  She was physically uncomfortable, couldn’t even keep down her own saliva because her lower esophagus was obstructed, and was in tears.

As her anesthesiologist, I came to evaluate her prior to surgery.  In fairly short order, I got her a tissue and a warm blanket, listened to her tale of woe, and finished my pre-anesthetic examination.  Nothing special.  At the end, she said,  “You’re so nice.  Were you a nurse before you were a doctor?”

Ouch.

No, I told her, I wasn’t.  Never a nurse; always a doctor.  She looked surprised.

And that little narrative may help to explain why we (physicians as a group) are having so much trouble with public relations, and  with the onslaught and success of mid-level caregivers who want to practice medicine without a license.  Their PR is better than ours because their PR task is easier:  patients already think mid-level health care personnel, especially nurses, are basically nicer and more sympathetic than we are.

Just look at the recent coverage of Hurricane Sandy.  News reporters on radio, TV, print, and online repeatedly and justly praised the heroic efforts that nurses made during the evacuation of patients from dark, flooded hospitals, and showed photos and video clips of nurses hand-ventilating premature infants.  But not once did I hear a mention of the attending physicians and residents who were no doubt working right alongside the nurses, let alone the respiratory therapists, orderlies, and all the other personnel.  Nurses got all the credit in the public’s view.

Anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists represent perhaps the most visible part of the physician/mid-level conflict, but other physicians are at risk as well.  The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) has recently made public its opinion that nurse practitioners shouldn’t run medical homes, but the Affordable Care Act supports independent practice for nurse practitioners–including admitting privileges to hospitals–just as it supports independent practice for nurse anesthetists.

The latest unbelievable turn of events is Medicare’s decision in favor of nurse anesthetists practicing interventional pain medicine without physician supervision.  Just so we’re clear, this means that a nurse anesthetist with no special qualification other than Medicare’s blessing can bill Medicare for performing invasive pain management procedures that physicians ordinarily train to do with four years of medical school, at least four years of residency, and a fellowship.  These are procedures so risky that my hospital wouldn’t consider me qualified to do them despite my MD degree and anesthesiology residency, because I haven’t taken advanced training in interventional pain management.

What are we going to do to turn around this public perception that doctors are curt, mean, and unsympathetic? And that nurses are always better, kinder, and maybe even smarter?  And can do everything doctors can do, just as well?

Read the Full Article

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