Doctors are growing uncomfortable with procedures. Is training to blame?

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It’s 2 a.m., and the patient’s blood pressure is beginning to rapidly decrease. Every IV line is occupied by an antibiotic or IV fluids, and we are in need of a vasoactive medication. The nurse comes to my computer and sternly states, “We can no longer avoid it. I think the patient needs a central line.” I quickly say “OK,” but I don’t move. I am momentarily frozen by my unease with the bedside procedure ahead. My mind is racing and questioning whether I can make any other treatment or management decision to avoid this procedure. I’ve got nothing. This is definitely what the patient needs. The nurse asks, “Are you signed off?”

I reply earnestly, with a strong “yes,” to convey to her that I am confident in my skills and comfortable. The honest reality is that I am nervous about doing this central line procedure and am finally facing my procedural comfort level straight on. Although I met the institutional requirement for quantity of this procedure needed for unsupervised performance of this skill, my comfort had waned in the few months since I had performed the procedure.

What feels like a recent development of more physicians being less comfortable with bedside procedures may really be a result of procedures transitioning primarily into the hands of specialists. A survey of internists from the American College of Physicians showed that primary internists regularly performed 16 in-office procedures in 1986, versus 7 in 2004. There has also been a recent movement to provide procedure-service models on many inpatient services that serve as exemplary models of procedure execution. These models offer expert supervisors, consistent teaching technique, and a controlled environment for the patient. Although these models are a plus for the patient, some would argue procedure services are performing procedures that previously would have been performed by trainees — the same trainees who must develop into our next generation of experts.

So how do these issues affect our journey to procedural safety for our patients and the training of future procedural experts? In recent years, the American Board of Internal Medicine has transitioned away from quantitative requirements to determine if physicians-in-training are ready for unsupervised performance of skills and has implemented milestone-based assessments. These milestone- and competency-based assessment tools require trainees to demonstrate effective mastery of needed technical skills and to understand and be able to manage complications (in addition to reaching a defined number of each procedure).

Although the ABIM has embraced milestone-based evaluation, many of our training programs continue the longstanding “signed off” culture after 5 or so of a common procedure are performed. Which, in my case, was not the point of comfort and may have not been the point of competency. As procedural training often is considered one of the most important aspects of training, I hope with innovation and diligence, we can continue to train competent procedural experts.

Briana Buckner is an internal medicine resident who blogs at Insights on Residency Training, a part of NEJM Journal Watch.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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