Should CRNAs practice anesthesiology without physician supervision?

Interesting article recently from Health Affairs about the clinical equivalence between the care provided by anesthesiologists and CRNAs. The article concludes by advocating that CRNAs be given permission to practice anesthesiology without physician supervision. It’s more cost effective. And there is no compromise to the quality of care delivered to patients.

We recommend CMS return to its original intention of allowing nurse anesthetists to work independently of surgeon or anesthesiologist supervision without requiring state governments to formally petition for an exemption,” they conclude. “This would free surgeons from the legal responsibilities for anesthesia services provided by other professionals. It would also lead to more cost-effective care as the solo practice of certified registered nurse anesthetists increases.” The study was funded by the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists.

A couple of caveats. One, the study was conducted by the American Association for Nurse Anesthetists (sort of like a study claiming that Jeff Parks is the smartest man on earth being conducted by “friends and family and hired sycophants of Dr. Parks”). Also, the study admits that CRNA’s tend to work on less complex cases than MD anesthesiologists.

The main thrust of papers like this is to delve into the essence of what it means to be a “doctor.” Are all doctors alike? Is the orthopod who replaces 350 knees a year the same as the internist cranking through 30 patients a day with complex medical problems? Is it fair or unfair to further categorize the various specialties according to some sort of intellectual hierarchy? Do some specialties verge perilously close to being mere technicians, thereby inviting the sort of turf war salvo sounded by the above referenced paper?

In reality, I think it goes beyond anesthesiology (although anesthesiologists are an arguably easier target). Most of the work done by a family practitioner can probably be adequately performed by a NP or PA without adverse effects. If you trained a physically gifted person to take out gallbladders and that’s all he did, day after day, I bet you would be able to find a paper demonstrating that the non-MD surgeon has a similar complication rate as a formally trained general surgeon. But then what is that automaton going to do when he encounters a cholecysto-colonic fistula or when the cholangiogram shows he has cut the common bile duct? What is the NP going to do when she has to manage a patient with diabetes, heart disease, peripheral vascular disease, and obesity who comes into the office with abdominal pain? Would any CRNA accept the responsibility and stress of running a CABG solo?

The bottom line is, most of the time you don’t need a doctor until you really need one. But you never know when that day is going to be. You never know when that seemingly normal patient who walks into the ER ends up turning into a complete disaster. My advice to these non-doctors seeking legitimacy and complete autonomy: be careful of what you wish for.

Jeffrey Parks is a general surgeon who blogs at Buckeye Surgeon.

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