Category Archives: Anesthesiology

You are not “asleep” under anesthesia

“You will be asleep for your surgery,” anesthesiologists often reassure their patients. Just before the start of anesthesia, a patient may hear the operating room nurse saying, “Think of a nice dream as you go off to sleep.”

While these statements are intended to soothe patients during a stressful time, they gloss over this critical fact: Anesthesia is not like normal sleep at all. 

That’s why you need medical doctors – anesthesiologists – to take care of you under anesthesia, and why you don’t need us when you’re sleeping comfortably in your own bed.

Differences between natural sleep and general anesthesia

Natural sleep represents an active though resting brain state. Every 90 minutes, the brain cycles between rapid eye movement or “REM” sleep and non-REM sleep. During each of these REM cycles, the brain is active, and dreams can take place. The rest and rejuvenation that result from getting a good night’s sleep are essential for overall health and wellbeing.

On the other hand, general anesthesia produces a brain wave pattern known as “burst-suppression,” where brief clusters of fast waves alternate with periods of minimal activity. In a recent article published in Frontiers in Psychology, Drs. Akshay Shanker and Emery Brown explain brain wave patterns found in patients under general anesthesia. They are similar to those of critically ill patients who fall into a coma, have a dangerously low body temperature, or suffer from other serious diseases. Under general anesthesia, patients do not dream.

Confusing general anesthesia and natural sleep seems innocent but can be dangerous. A person who falls into natural sleep doesn’t require constant monitoring or observation. A patient under anesthesia, like an intensive care unit patient in a coma, may appear peaceful and relaxed, but anesthetic drugs don’t produce natural sleep and may cause breathing to stop or have other serious side effects.  Some may recall that Michael Jackson died at home while receiving the anesthetic drug propofol in his veins without an anesthesiologist nearby to protect him.

For patients with chronic health problems, having surgery and anesthesia can put significant stress on the body. Anesthesia gases and medications can temporarily decrease the heart’s pumping ability and affect blood flow to the liver and kidneys. Patients under general anesthesia often need a breathing tube and a ventilator to breathe for them and support their lungs with oxygen.

Respect anesthesia, but don’t fear it

While having anesthesia and surgery should never be taken lightly, anesthesia care today is very safe as long as it is directed by a physician specializing in anesthesiology: an anesthesiologist. Anesthesiology is a medical specialty just like cardiology, surgery, or pediatrics. Research by anesthesiologists has led to the development of better monitors, better training using simulation methods inspired by the aviation industry, and new medications and techniques to give safer pain relief.

As a medical specialty, anesthesiology focuses on improving patient safety, outcomes and experiences.  Anesthesiologists work with surgeons and other healthcare professionals to get you or your family member ready for surgery, designing an anesthesia care and pain management plan specific to the type of operation you need. The anesthesia plan will guide your care during your procedure and throughout your recovery. While general anesthesia is far different from natural sleep, the job of the anesthesiologist is to make sure that you wake up just the same.

This post has also been featured on KevinMD.com.

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The Problem of Burnout in Anesthesiology

I have written previously about what I love about being an anesthesiologist and why I still love being an anesthesiologist after all these years.

Recent articles have drawn attention to the pervasive problem of burnout among anesthesiologists, and the numbers are alarming. The overall prevalence within anesthesiology is approximately 60%, and this rate varies by subspecialty with pain physicians being at highest risk.

Our writing group has published two letters in the Journal of Clinical Anesthesia that offer additional perspectives and highlight important work on this subject: “A field on fire: Why has there been so much attention focused on burnout among anesthesiologists?” and “Fighting burnout in the COVID-19 era is a family matter.”

The previously-published studies by Hyman et al and Afonso et al report data collected prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. While anesthesiologists were hailed as frontline heroes worldwide for their roles in the emergency response, airway management, and critical care of COVID-19 patients, their lives and their careers were also completely disrupted.

At work, anesthesiologists had to deal with confronting a previously unknown and highly transmissible respiratory pandemic, long hours and uncertain schedules, new personal protective equipment (PPE) protocols and PPE shortages, quarantines, and frequently-changing guidelines. Shelter-in-place orders led to school and office closures which added the stressors of working from home and virtual schooling on top of pandemic parenting, and women anesthesiologists were disproportionately affected.

Moving forward, the ongoing assessment and mitigation of burnout among anesthesiologists will take dedicated effort and leadership. Our letter recommends periodic evaluation of work-related risk factors and check-ins with anesthesiologist team members. Further, recognition of the challenges to work-life integration imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic warrants implementation of reliable interventions that may prevent the same issues from happening again in the future.

In addition, it may be more appropriate to promote wellness at the family level, rather than simply the individual level, because anesthesiologists cannot reasonably focus on their important physician roles when there are concurrent and competing stressors at home.

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7 Guiding Principles for Acute Perioperative Pain Management

I had the privilege of co-chairing the 2021 Pain Summit hosted by American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA). In the months preceding the summit, ASA physician volunteers and staff as well as representatives from 14 other surgical specialty and healthcare organizations worked towards achieving consensus on a common set of principles to guide physicians and other clinicians who manage acute perioperative pain.

These 7 proposed principles are:

  1. Conduct a preoperative evaluation including assessment of medical and psychological conditions, concomitant medications, history of chronic pain, substance abuse disorder, and previous postoperative treatment regimens and responses, to guide the perioperative pain management plan.
  2. Use a validated pain assessment tool to track responses to postoperative pain treatments and adjust treatment plans accordingly.
  3. Offer multimodal analgesia, or the use of a variety of analgesic medications and techniques combined with nonpharmacological interventions, for the treatment of postoperative pain in adults.
  4. Provide patient and family-centered, individually tailored education to the patient (and/or responsible caregiver), including information on treatment options for managing postoperative pain, and document the plan and goals for postoperative pain management.
  5. Provide education to all patients (adult) and primary caregivers on the pain treatment plan, including proper storage and disposal of opioids and tapering of analgesics after hospital discharge.
  6. Adjust the pain management plan based on adequacy of pain relief and presence of adverse events.
  7. Have access to consultation with a pain specialist for patients who have inadequately controlled postoperative pain or at high risk of inadequately controlled postoperative pain at their facilities (e.g., long-term opioid therapy, history of substance use disorder).

This is the first project from this new collaborative, which focused on the adult surgical patient, and there are already plans for future projects. The participating organizations are:

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
  • American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery
  • American Association of Neurological Surgeons
  • American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons
  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
  • American College of Surgeons
  • American Hospital Association
  • American Medical Association
  • American Society of Breast Surgeons
  • American Society of Plastic Surgeons
  • American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine
  • American Urological Association
  • Society of Thoracic Surgeons

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Practical Tips for Successful Virtual Fellowship Interviews

Guest authored by Jody C. Leng, MD, MS, and Kariem El-Boghdadly, MBBS, BSc (Hons), FRCA, EDRA, MSc. Dr. Leng is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and is the Director of Regional Anesthesiology and Acute Pain Medicine at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. Dr. El-Boghdadly is a consultant anaesthetist and the research and development lead for anaesthesia and perioperative medicine at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and is an honorary senior lecturer at King’s College in London.

The Covid-19 pandemic has normalized virtual everything. For both interviewers and interviewees, participating in virtual interviews for subspecialty fellowship programs has required major adjustment. We have summarized some key lessons we have learned in preparing for our second year in a row of virtual regional anesthesiology and acute pain medicine fellowship interviews in the following infographic.

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We Still Have an Opioid Epidemic

COVID-19 has changed every aspect of our personal and professional lives.

In the midst of this pandemic, we still have an opioid epidemic. It is not one thing unfortunately, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe three distinct waves of opioid-related overdose deaths.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Given the complexity of the opioid epidemic, we have to keep working within our spheres of influence. For those of us in anesthesiology, that means focusing on surgical patients: improving their outcomes and providing effective perioperative pain management along with opioid stewardship.

Dr. Chad Brummett and his colleagues at Michigan OPEN have been leading the way in procedure-specific opioid prescribing recommendations. Their process, which takes into account data from the Collaborative Quality Initiative (CQI), published studies, and expert input, specifically focuses on the perioperative care of patients who are not taking any opioids prior to surgery.

Continue reading We Still Have an Opioid Epidemic

Through multimodal analgesia, we prevent and treat pain in a variety of ways without depending solely on opioids.

At our institution, we offer patients regional anesthesia and have been able to decrease the amount of opioid pills that patients are given when they leave the hospital by basing the prescription on how much they use the prior day. Patients participate in this process, and we give them clear instructions on how to safety taper their opioids at home.

As a representative of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA), I have been able to collaborate with surgical societies such as the American Society of Breast Surgeons and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons to develop pain management recommendations and toolkits that emphasize multimodal analgesia, use of regional anesthesia techniques for targeted non-opioid pain management when it is available, and opioid safety in the hospital and at home.

ASA-AAOS Pain Alleviation Toolkit

I also represent ASA as a member of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) Action Collaborative Countering the U.S. Opioid Epidemic. The first discussion paper from the NAM pain management workgroup was released on Aug 10: Best Practices, Research Gaps, and Future Priorities to Support Tapering Patients on Long-Term Opioid Therapy for Chronic Non-Cancer Pain in Outpatient Settings. This paper highlights best practices in opioid tapering and identifies evidence gaps to drive future research.

Despite the massive amount of resources, human effort, and time dedicated to the fight against COVID-19, we have still managed to make progress in decreasing opioid-related risk in the perioperative period. However, there is still a lot of work left to do, and our patients are depending on us.

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A Year Ends and a New One Begins

This academic year was truly like no other.

At the end of July, we graduated three new physician experts in regional anesthesiology and acute pain medicine (RAAPM), and I could not be more proud of them! From our welcome party in the summer of 2019 to a year’s worth of teaching sessions, socials, and medical missions to the opening of the new Stanford hospital, the #COVID19 pandemic and #BlackLivesMatter movement – what a year for our amazing grads! Check out this fantastic graduation video from Dr. Jody Leng:

Our graduating fellows surprised me with the honor of being their Teacher of the Year along with Dr. Ryan Derby! It is such a privilege to be part of our fellows’ training every year and see them grow into physician consultants with RAAPM expertise.

Our new fellows are off to a strong start and are now officially part of our Stanford RAAPM family! If you are interested in learning more about our fellowship program, please visit our fellowship website and contact me with any questions.

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Congratulations to Our Newest Anesthesiologists

2020 is a unique graduation year for all of our anesthesiology residents and fellows due to COVID-19, but never before has the role of anesthesiologists been more relevant. The American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) has prepared this special graduation message so programs can incorporate it into their virtual ceremonies, and it features a very special commencement speaker: Dr. Jerome Adams, the Surgeon General of the United States!

Link to graduation video: https://bit.ly/3eMg5ET

Nearly all of these physicians who are just starting their careers specializing in anesthesiology have completed 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, and 4 years of internship and residency plus 1 or more years of fellowship training for many. Hopefully this message will help our newest graduates, their families and friends, and their teachers and mentors recognize and commemorate this important milestone in their lives.

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Being a Positive and Authentic Voice

“The key is to not reflexively get defensive, but to treat people on social media as you would treat them in real life.”

Season 2 Episode 33: Being a Positive and Authentic Voice with Dr. Ed Mariano 

Drs. Shillcutt and Mariano get real and talk: 

  • Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic information overload  
  • Discussing hard topics on social media 
  • Being a positive voice for marginalized groups 
  • Being a “Chief Cheerleader”  
  • The key to joy at work 

In this episode of The Brave Enough Show, I had a chance to speak with host Dr. Sasha Shillcutt about a variety of topics including #HeforShe, leadership, and maintaining a positive voice on social media. Enjoy!

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Beyond COVID-19: Stand Up for Veterans Having Surgery

Our Veterans have made tremendous sacrifices to defend our freedoms. Now it is our time to defend them.

Many people, even those who work in the operating room every day, take safe anesthesia care for granted. There has been growing pressure during this pandemic to remove physician 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 a physician in charge of anesthesia care at hospitals where anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists work together as a team makes the most sense.

Having a team with members who train differently and have different perspectives can only benefit the patient; anesthesiologists are physicians who draw on their medical training while nurse anesthetists bring valuable nursing experience. If you were a patient having surgery, wouldn’t you want an anesthesiologist directly involved in your care and leading the anesthesia team? If the answer is yes, please send your comments to Safe VA Care and let your elected officials know by contacting them.

Continue reading Beyond COVID-19: Stand Up for Veterans Having Surgery

Providing anesthesia is often compared to flying a passenger airplane, and the anesthesia care team model is like having both a pilot and a co-pilot. 

Who thinks flying has become so safe that we no longer need the pilot? Seconds count in flight, and they count just as much in the operating room when a patient’s life is on the line. 

In 2016, the VA rejected independent practice for nurse anesthetists after careful consideration, but this decision was recently overturned by a memo citing the COVID-19 pandemic. This memo abolishes the anesthesia care team model without giving Veterans a choice. Veterans having surgery may only get a nurse anesthetist without the option of having an anesthesiologist involved. If they were given the choice, however, I think our Veterans would choose an anesthesiologist or an anesthesia care team led by an anesthesiologist instead of a nurse anesthetist alone. We all should. In areas affected by surges of COVID-19, elective surgeries at the VA are stopped so there is no shortage of anesthesiologists.

Anesthesiologists all over the world have been fighting COVID-19 and have shown what they can do with their specialized medical training in a crisis. Although commonly referred to as “going to sleep,” general anesthesia is more like a complex drug-induced coma that can carry serious risk. If or when a crisis happens during surgery, every patient should have access to an anesthesiologist.

Modern anesthesiologists are physicians first but also scientists, educators, and patient safety advocates. Anesthesiologists specialize in relieving anxiety, preventing and treating pain, preventing and managing complications related to surgery, critical care, and improving patient outcomes. The average anesthesiologist spends nearly a decade in postgraduate education after college including medical school 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 newer and safer anesthetics, pain therapies, and technologies that are advancing healthcare throughout the world.

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. To uphold the highest quality physician-led anesthesia care for our nation’s Veterans, please speak up by supporting Safe VA Care and reaching out to legislators. 

It only takes a minute to stand up for safety, but the consequences of not saying something may be serious and long-lasting.

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Conference Cancelled Due to COVID-19? Go Virtual!

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the usual spring meeting season for medical societies never got started. In San Francisco, all events hosting more than 1000 people were prohibited. As a result, the 2020 annual ASRA regional anesthesiology and acute pain medicine meeting was cancelled.

However, there were nearly 400 scientific abstract posters submitted to the meeting and posted online. For so many registered attendees, the ASRA meeting was an opportunity to share their latest research and medically challenging cases with their colleagues and solicit feedback.

Continue reading Conference Cancelled Due to COVID-19? Go Virtual!

There was no way to preserve the complex structure of an ASRA meeting (e.g., workshops, plenary lectures, problem-based learning discussion, networking sessions), but a moderated poster session was feasible using common videoconferencing applications. The Chair of the 2019 ASRA spring meeting, Dr. Raj Gupta, took it to the next level by using StreamYard to simultaneously broadcast the video feed to multiple social media platforms (e.g., Twitter/Periscope, Facebook, YouTube). In addition to accessing the livestream for free, participants could make comments and pose questions to the speakers and moderator through their social media applications.

Dr. Gupta hosted 6 sessions, and these were archived on YouTube for later viewing. As an example, here is one session focused on regional anesthesia abstracts in which I participated:

Although it was disappointing to not have an ASRA spring meeting this year, something good came out of it. The livestreamed poster discussions were an innovative way to showcase the science and educational cases as well as leverage social media to attract a global audience. Since medical conferences may never completely return to pre-COVID normal, embracing technology and incorporating online sessions should be considered by continuing medical education planners going forward.

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