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.”
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.”
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.”
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 health care 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.
Karen S. Sibert is an anesthesiologist who blogs at A Penned Point. This article originally appeared in Anesthesiology News.
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