Category Archives: California Society of Anesthesiologists

Physician-Led Anesthesia is Safe Anesthesia

Anesthesia1Many people, even those who work in the operating room every day, take safe anesthesia care for granted.  There has been growing pressure recently to abandon the team model and remove physician anesthesiologists’ supervision of nurse anesthetists with the latest threat coming from within Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare.  For our Veterans, our heroes and arguably some of the most medically complex patients, having both physician anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists working together as a team makes sense.

Having a team with members who train differently and have different perspectives can only benefit the patient; physician anesthesiologists draw on their medical training while nurse anesthetists bring valuable nursing experience.  Providing anesthesia is often compared to flying a passenger airplane, and the care team model is like having both a pilot and a co-pilot.  Has flying become so safe that we no longer need the pilot?  Seconds count in flight, and they count in the operating room when a patient’s life is on the line.  If approved, the proposed change in the VA nursing handbook will abolish this team model without giving Veterans a choice and will require VA hospitals to assign Veterans having surgery either a nurse anesthetist OR a physician anesthesiologist but not offer both.  If they were given the choice, however, I think our Veterans would choose “AND” instead of “OR.”  We all should.  In case a crisis happens during surgery, every patient should have access to a physician anesthesiologist.

Not too long ago operating room personnel had to worry about explosive anesthetic gases, and patients faced the risk of developing organ failure after every time they had anesthesia in addition to the usual perils of having surgery.  This changed when anesthesiology became a medical specialty and profession for physicians.

How is anesthesiology different than anesthesiaAnesthesia, a word with Greek origin, means “without sensation.”  Often referred to as “going to sleep,” general anesthesia is more like a complex drug-induced coma that can still carry serious risk, and a person’s physical and emotional reactions to anesthetic agents are not always predictable.

Anesthesiology is a science like biology or physiology and a specialty field of medicine like cardiology or radiology.  Modern anesthesiologists are physicians, scientists, educators, and patient safety advocates.  The heart of anesthesiology continues to be the patient experience.  As physician anesthesiologists, we specialize in relieving anxiety, preventing and treating pain, preventing and managing complications related to surgery, and improving the outcomes for patients who undergo invasive procedures.  The average physician anesthesiologist spends nearly a decade in postgraduate education after college and logs 16,000 hours of clinical training to learn to apply the best available evidence in clinical practice.  Academic physicians and scientists focused on anesthesiology are responsible for the discovery of the newer and safer anesthetic and analgesic agents we use every day.

Anesthesia administration by non-physicians such as nurse anesthetists and certified anesthesiologist assistants is supported by the American Society of Anesthesiologists within the physician-led anesthesia care team model.  A similar model is used in the intensive care unit with physician intensivists supervising teams that include acute care nurse practitioners.  To preserve safe, high-quality physician-led anesthesia care for our nation’s Veterans, please support the team model and #SafeVACare by speaking up on http://www.safevacare.org by July 25th.  It only takes a minute to post a comment, but the consequences of not saying something may be serious and long-lasting.

This post has also been featured on KevinMD.com.

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To the Next Generation of Physician Leaders

I was recently invited to visit an academic anesthesiology department to speak to the residents about becoming a leader (see SlideShare). In addition to recognizing the honor and privilege of addressing this important topic with the next generation of physician anesthesiologists, I had two other initial thoughts: 1) I must be getting old; and 2) This isn’t going to be easy.

Balloon FiestaI came up with a short list of lessons that I’ve learned over the years. While some examples I included are anesthesiology-specific, the lessons themselves are not. Please feel free to edit, adapt, and add to this list; then disseminate it to the future physician leaders who will one day take our places.

  1. First and foremost, be a good doctor. Always remember that we as physicians take an oath. In the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath commonly recited at medical school graduations today, we say, “May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.” As a physician anesthesiologist, we care for the most vulnerable of patients—those who under anesthesia cannot care for themselves. Examples of anesthesiologists who do not honor their calling exist in the news and even scientific journals, but we cannot follow this path. 

     

  2. Define your identity. We live in the era of the “provider,” and this sometimes causes role confusion from the perspective of our patients. Team PhotoWe also don’t tend to do ourselves any favors. How many times have you heard someone say, “Hi I’m [first name only] with anesthesia”? According to the American Society of Anesthesiologists newsletter, approximately 60% of the public may not know that physician anesthesiologists go to medical school. While every member of the anesthesia care team plays a crucial role, the next level of non-physician provider in this model has one-tenth the amount of clinical training when compared to a physician anesthesiologist at graduation. I’ve written before about what I love about being an anesthesiologist, and being the physician whom patients trust to keep them safe during surgery is a privilege which comes with a great deal of responsibility.
  3. Consider the “big picture.” The health care enterprise is constantly evolving. Today, the emphasis is on value and not volume. Value takes into account quality and cost with the highest quality care at the lowest cost being the ultimate goal. The private practice model of anesthesiology has changed dramatically in the last few years with the growth of “mega-groups” created by vertical and horizontal integration of smaller practices and sometimes purchased by private investors. In this environment, physician anesthesiologists and anesthesiology groups will have to consider ways they can add value, improve the patient experience, and reduce costs of care in order to stay relevant and competitive.
  4. Promote positive change. Observe, ask questions, hypothesize solutions, collect data, evaluate results, draw conclusions, and form new hypotheses—these are all elements of the scientific method and clinical medicine. These steps are also common to process improvement, making physicians perfectly capable of system redesign. The key is establishing your team’s mission and vision, strategic planning and goal-setting, and regularly evaluating progress. Books have been written on these subjects, so I can’t do these topics justice here. In my opinion, physicians offer an important and necessary perspective that cannot be lost as healthcare becomes more and more business-like.
  5. Be open to opportunities. Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” I have written previously about the merits of saying yes. As a resident or new staff physician, it often seems impossible to get involved. However, most hospital committee meetings are open to guests. Consider going to one that covers a topic of interest and volunteer for a task if the opportunity presents itself. In addition, many professional societies invite members to self-nominate for committees or submit proposals for educational activities at their annual meetings.
  6. IMG_7673Thank your team. Taking the first steps on the path to leadership is not going to be easy. There will be many obstacles, not the least of which is time management. A high-functioning healthcare team of diverse backgrounds, skills, and abilities will accomplish much more than what an individual can do alone. Celebrate team wins. Respect each team member’s opinion even when it differs from yours.

A good leader should earn the trust of his or her team every day.

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Hints for Anesthesiology Residency Applicants

Job-InterviewThis post is co-authored by Dr. Kyle Harrison (@KyleHarrisonMD) and has also been featured on CSA Online First.

So, you’ve finished your third year of medical school and have decided that you want to be an anesthesiologist. In our completely biased opinion, you are making the right choice and, at the end of your residency training, you will be in a unique position to enhance the experience and improve the outcomes of patients undergoing surgery and invasive procedures. However, securing a coveted slot in an anesthesiology residency in the United States has never been more competitive. In the many years that we have spent as faculty in academic anesthesiology departments, we have learned a few things about the application process. Our views are our own and do not reflect the official views of any anesthesiology residency program with which we have been affiliated. The following are some (hopefully helpful) answers to common questions that we have been asked over the years.

How High Do My USMLE Score and GPA Have to Be?
Competitive scores are essential. We can’t quote you a number because they vary year to year and program to program, but the trend is only increasing. All medical students, regardless of school, applying in anesthesiology must do well on the USMLE. Think about it — this is the only equalizing factor between schools that teach differently or have different reputations. Having a great score doesn’t guarantee you admission, but if your scores are not competitive, you will have an uphill battle to get a residency slot at a top program. The value of the standardized test score in learning is often debated in academia; however, no one will argue against the conclusion that previous success on standardized tests usually predicts future success on standardized tests. Residency training is demanding. Programs want their residents 100 percent committed and not worrying too much about how they will perform on their annual in-training exams and eventual certification exam.

Do I Need to Have Research Experience?
No program will ever discourage applicants with research experience from applying; we would say that it is not required but is recommended. Don’t do it for the sake of doing it, but definitely do it if you can find a project that you are passionate about. While research in anesthesiology or pain makes sense (shows academic interest in the chosen field), it can really be in any area. It is more impressive to be involved in a project (big or small), see it through, and maybe even present at a meeting or publish in a journal, than to just say you did “research.” If you do list research on your application or curriculum, make sure you can talk about the project, your specific role, and what you learned from it; you will be asked. If you are not interested in research, then consider focusing on another aspect of extracurricular life such as community service.

What Should Be on My List of Extracurricular Activities?
If there is something about you that is really different, it’s helpful to mention it. Again, the application process isn’t perfect, but the file you submit is all the information program coordinators and directors have. If you have done something special — climbed Mt. Everest, set up HIV clinics in Africa, won Olympic medals, had a previous career — or do something noteworthy, such as volunteer extensively in your community, play an instrument, or dance professionally, mention those things. Yes, we have actually seen these applicants (and interviewed them of course)! Selection committee members often apply the “3 a.m. call rule” when reviewing an applicant. This is: Would you like to be on call in the middle of the night with this person? Applicants viewed as hardworking, clinically competent, and interesting to talk to should result in a solid “yes.” If you just like to run in your free time, mentioning that probably doesn’t make a huge difference in the application.

Do I Need to Do an Anesthesiology Rotation?
You should do an anesthesiology rotation at your local institution at the very least. Programs want to know if you understand what you’re getting yourself into. And it does make a difference how well you did on the rotation. Many students approach their anesthesiology rotation as the “intubation and IV insertion” rotation. Most anesthesiologists like us are passionate about their specialty, and the specialty itself in rapidly evolving (familiarize yourself with the Perioperative Surgical Home model). Trust us — we can tell when a student is genuinely interested in anesthesiology, or not. In our experience, medical students who stand out pay attention to what is going on in the perioperative period, anticipate events, know how to be helpful, get involved with the entire patient care episode (starting with the preoperative evaluation, through giving report to the nurse in the recovery room, and even including postoperative follow-up). It is never impressive to see a medical student standing around looking bored. There is always something to do — for example, when a patient arrives in the OR, you can start applying monitors without prompting, or help with positioning. Residents and staff anesthesiologists recognize these things and reward you by getting you more involved with patient care, including procedures.

Who Should Write My Letters of Recommendation?
The dean’s letter is the big one and counts the most. The form of the dean’s letter is usually standardized, so residency program directors have to weed through all the verbiage to get the information they want. It helps when the dean’s letter includes the student’s rank and any special merits (e.g., AOA). Additional letters should be written by faculty members who really know you and can provide helpful content — research mentor, career advisor, staff physician with whom you have worked closely. It doesn’t add strength to an application to have a lot of generic letters (quality over quantity); three strong letters are better than two strong plus three average letters, since the strong letters may get lost in the sea of information in the applicant’s file.

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What Else Can I Do to Improve My Chances?
Unfortunately there are no guarantees. The “gatekeeper” is the initial electronic application. With anesthesiology departments receiving hundreds of applications each year, most will sound exactly the same. “I love pharmacology and physiology” (while possibly true for some) only takes you so far. Something unique about the applicant has to come through the pages. Excellent grades and USMLE scores, strong dean’s letter and other recommendations, personal experiences, prior careers, other degrees, thought-provoking research, a list of activities, and a unique personal statement — anything that sets you apart from the pack can make a difference!

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What Is Anesthesiology?

Anesthesiology is a specialty of medicine.

Anesthesiologists are physicians who promote patient well-being in and out of the operating room. As a diverse group, we can deliver safe anesthesia care in the operating room and procedural areas using a wide array of state-of-the-art technology, provide medical evaluation and consultation for patients before and after surgery, manage pain conditions resulting from surgery or other injuries in the short- and long-term, and discover safer and more effective ways to care for patients in the field of anesthesiology research.

After college, modern anesthesiologists complete four years of medical school then four years of residency training, and many go on to pursue extra years of fellowship training in pediatric or cardiac anesthesiology, acute or chronic pain medicine, critical care medicine, research, or other specialty fields of perioperative care. Anesthesiologists are specialists in the human condition under stress, mastering the areas of physiology and pharmacology, including the body’s response to potent medications.

Team5Great strides in patient safety have been made by anesthesiologists. Specifically, the use of life-like patient simulation in the training of new physicians was pioneered by anesthesiologists. Research conducted by anesthesiologists at the VA Palo Alto, in part, led to the replacement of toxic (and occasionally explosive) anesthetic gases with the safe agents we use today.  It is no exaggeration to say that modern surgery would not exist without the incredible advances in anesthesiology.

I am proud to be an anesthesiologist and follow in the footsteps of giants who have come before me. I have the best job in the world:  helping patients through the stressful experience of surgery, relieving pain, and making new discoveries through research that will hopefully benefit future patients.

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