Thursday, September 16, 2021

How Much Do CRNAs Make And Why I'm Totally Jealous

US Bureau of Labor Statistics

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has released the numbers for the average salaries of CRNAs. You better sit down for this. They are quite astonishing. Remember when nurse anesthetists first broke into six figure incomes and everybody thought that was amazing? Well now they are doing much much better. According to the federal government, the average CRNA income was $189,190. However many CRNAs are doing even better than that. The nurses in Oregon are doing the best, with annual incomes of $236,540. As a matter of fact, CRNAs from eleven states earn over $200,000 per year. 

Why should I be jealous of this when the average income for anesthesiologists is twice as much? Medscape's annual physician compensation survey this year showed that anesthesiologists reported earning over $370,000 per year. I shouldn't be upset that somebody makes half my income, right?

Remember that CRNAs also have work schedules that resemble any other nurses in the hospital. They have a set schedule during the day that are practically inviolable. If they have a 12 hour shift, by golly they are only working 12 hours that day. We've had an instance where the case reached a critical period and because it happened right at the end of their shift, the anesthetist simply walked away from the patient and boogied their way to the parking lot. The anesthesiologist was the one who stayed behind to finish the case and make sure the patient was satisfactorily taken to the recovery room.

The anesthetists also have guaranteed morning and afternoon breaks along with a luxurious lunch break. We've had CRNAs literally quit because they didn't get their required lunch break one day. I've had days where I'm lucky to get a two minute run to the bathroom between cases. Getting a daily 30 minute lunch break is the stuff of fevered dreams.

CRNAs also don't work as many hours. Like other nurses, they work three days a week. Ours also don't take any calls or work any weekends. So with all that free time they can work at other locations and double their salaries if they so choose.

I've been told by CRNAs that not all of them have such schedules. Many of them work in remote or dangerous places unlike anesthesiologists who prefer to congregate in nicer locations. Some also take calls and work long unpredictable hours like anesthesiologists. But I suspect those work conditions are fairly uncommon and they always have the option of moving to a different job with all the perks.

So yes I'm jealous of the CRNAs. I know many anesthesiologists who would gladly take half their incomes for a work schedule that includes guaranteed breaks, guaranteed hours, three day work weeks, no calls or weekends, and the most important thing, little liability for any incident. I would say that's a fair trade. Wouldn't you agree?

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Medicare Pays Anesthesiologists Less Than Plumbers


American doctors may be among the highest paid physicians in the world, but that wouldn't include anesthesiologist who receive their patient reimbursements through government healthcare. 

In an interview in Becker's ASC Review, Dr. Scott Harper, Assistant Professor of the Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine at the University of Alabama Birmingham, noted that Medicare pays anesthesiologists the equivalent of $45 an hour for their services. That's less than what your local plumber charges you to come in and look at your clogged toilet.

With new federal laws prohibiting doctors from balance billing, which is charging patients for the balance of a medical bill not fully paid for by insurance, the problem is only getting worse. Insurance companies have no incentive to reimburse doctors fairly because they don't have to deal with irate customers who have to pay out of pocket anymore. Now these companies are canceling contracts and lowering thier reimbursement rates, getting closer to Medicare rates.

Anesthesiologists already have to put with Medicare payments that are only about one third of private insurance reimbursements. Medicaid, which is government insurance for the poor and indigent, pays even less. The wide expansion of stingy Medicaid is how the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare is able to insure millions more people, on the backs of doctors and hospitals. 

If the private insurance payments keep going lower, anesthesia private practice will be a thing of the past. We will all become hospital employees like emergency medicine or pathologists. Only hospitals will have the leverage to negotiate fair contracts with these behemoth insurance corporations. Individual anesthesiologists will not be able to sustain a viable business model with payments that rival the plumbing profession because plumbers don't have to pay back six figure student loans and five figure malpractice insurance premiums as part of their business expenses. 

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Are American Doctors Overpaid?

Here we go again--another article that compares physician incomes around the world. It's not surprising that they almost always show American doctors are paid more than any other country's, seeming to confirm the belief that the US healthcare system is too expensive because of greedy doctors. However, there is a big caveat in any of these international physician income comparisons. We will get to that. This time, the income survey comes to us courtesy of Medscape. 

Medscape International Physician Compensation Survey

Medscape's study, in a survey of thousands of doctors around the world, once again shows American doctors are paid much more than anybody else, with an average income of $316,000. This is almost twice as much as second place Germany ($183,000) and United Kingdom ($138,000). Mexican physicians earned the least in this survey, averaging only $12,000.

American primary care doctors made about the same as their German counterparts, $242,000 to $200,000. But that is still twice as much as the UK, $122,000. Our specialists made far more than anywhere else, with male specialists earning $376,000. Meanwhile the German specialists made $194,000 and the UK specialists earned $155,000. It's plain that the Europeans place more of an emphasis on compensating their primary care doctors rather than their specialists like we do here.

Since American doctors make the most money, it goes to reason that our net worth is far higher than anyone else's. American physicians' net worths average $1,742,000. The UK doctors' net worths average only a third of Americans, $657,000. Germans are even lower, $441,000.

What are the debts that physicians have to carry? As expected, doctors around the world have mortgage payments to make and car loans to pay off. No surprise there. What is unfortunately not covered in the survey are the expenses that American doctors are faced with and makes our system uniquely expensive and burdensome.

American doctors carry a huge amount of student loan debt when they graduate from medical school. That expense is carried through the three to seven year residency and fellowship programs when there is not enough income to pay back the loan. Therefore doctors here are burdened with a giant fiscal deficit when they first begin their practices. Perhaps this important aspect of American medical economics is not asked of our international counterparts because their doctors are usually trained for free or with just nominal fees. 

International physicians also don't have to worry as much about medical malpractice lawsuits. American doctors face annual five to six figure malpractice insurance expenses that our global compatriots don't even have to think about. 

Yes American doctors make more money than anywhere else in the world. But we also have the highest education debts and the highest insurance expenses. You subtract these payments and our incomes aren't so disparate after all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Past President Of The Kansas Society Of Anesthesiologists Indicted For Fraud

Scott T. Roethle, MD
This is totally effing unbelievable. Dr. Scott T. Roethle, MD, an anesthesiologist residing in the state of Kansas, has been indicted by a federal grand jury for healthcare fraud. What makes this case so difficult to fathom is that Dr. Roethle is a past president of the Kansas Society of Anesthesiologists. He has also served as a delegate to the ASA and an executive director of the Kansas City Medical Society. In addition, he appears to be involved in multiple start up companies according to his bio

According to the indictment, Dr. Roethle was charged with receiving kickbacks worth $674,000 for writing prescriptions for patients he never saw or documented. He would charge $30 per prescription. His orders were usually for orthopedic devices or lab tests that the patients said they never asked for. This fraud carried on from 2017 to 2020. Medicare says they lost $26 million for these phony prescriptions. He has medical licenses in 22 states and thus could write prescriptions for patients all over the country. 

I'd like to think that there is more than one Scott T. Roethle who is an anesthesiologist in Kansas. I would love to be proven wrong and chalk this up as a mistaken identity. But Google only found one Scott Roethle, MD and the ASA's own membership directory showed only a single anesthesiologist in the whole country by this name. In a physician review website, Dr. Scott Roethle is listed as having ten disciplinary actions taken against him by different medical boards across the country. How do doctors continue to find hospitals who will hire them when they've got so much baggage? 

Dr. Roethle, good luck with your court case. I hope they throw you in the slammer and take away your medical license forever for besmirching the reputations of anesthesiologists everywhere. Was your life really worth a measly $30 per prescription or $674,000 over four years? Any decent anesthesiologist can make much more than that working an honest job.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Awake While Under The Knife

This is a surgical patient's worst nightmare. Frankly it's also an anesthesiologist's worst nightmare too. In July 2020, Matthew Caswell underwent a hernia operation at Progress West Hospital in O'Fallon, Missouri. Unfortunately he was awake for at least thirteen minutes during the operation. The anesthesia team had paralyzed him then forgot to turn on a volatile agent to induce amnesia.

Mr. Caswell said he knew something was off when he could feel his skin being cleaned with the cold prepping agent. Expecting that his anesthesia would kick in any moment, next thing he felt was the knife cutting his skin. He was paralyzed and could not inform the anesthesia team that he was awake. His heart rate jumped from 70 to 115. Meanwhile his blood pressure shot up from 113/73 to 158/113. He could feel three trocars inserted through his abdominal wall and his abdomen being insufflated for the operation.

According to the lawsuit, the anesthesia team at this point should have noticed that something was wrong. Yet no further anesthesia was given for thirteen minutes. In the meantime he could hear and feel everything that was going on in the operating room. Mr. Caswell said he was so scared he thought he was having a heart attack.

The anesthesia records later showed a "Significant Event Note." It said that "review of the anesthetic record demonstrates a delay in initiating inhalational anesthetic after induction of anesthesia." Mr. Caswell and his mother were "immediately informed regarding the delay in initiating the inhaled anesthetic agent until after the start of the surgical procedure." It goes on to say that the hospital provided emotional support immediately after the surgery and they would offer psychological counseling for free. His mother took a video of Matthew immediately after the operation and it's clear he has been traumatized by the entire ordeal.


Mr. Caswell is suing Washington University along with the anesthesiologist, Brian Weber, MD, JD, and Kathleen O'Leary, CRNA. (Though the first page of the complaint says Dr. Weber's first name is Brian, the subsequent pages of the complaint call him Bruce. I can't explain the discrepancy.) I can't think of much defense they can mount against this tragedy. Better just write a big fat check right now. Lucky for them the plaintiff is suing each defendent for only $25,000 each. 

This is going to be an unfortunate black mark on this young anesthesiologist's career. It's the kind of incident that can easily derail a promising new physician and make him question everything he's learned during training. Though not as traumatized as the patient, Dr. Weber is likely to feel enormous guilt for a very long time.

There are various methods to prevent surgical recall. Some have advocated using a BIS monitor to track a patient's level of consciousness. Other's show that making sure enough inhalational agents in the patient will prevent recall just as well as the BIS. Giving the patient midazolam preoperatively can help ensure amnesia in case not enough gas has been given to the patient.

Perhaps the most important thing the anesthesiologist can do is to always be vigilant. Be constantly aware of what is happening to the patient. Just because an operation is likely to be routine and uneventful is not an excuse to stop monitoring the patient scrupulously. If the anesthesia team in this case had been more attentive to the stresses manifested by Mr. Caswell's tortured surgery, maybe they wouldn't have waited thirteen whole minutes before finally giving him his anesthesia.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Anesthesiologists Need Space Too

 

Looks about right for an anesthesia work space.

Anesthesiologists are frequently an afterthought when it comes to designing operating rooms. I've worked in operating rooms so small there was literally just enough space for the patient gurney to get wheeled in and no room to walk around it once the patient was inside. I've worked in rooms that were literally former janitorial storage rooms. I vividly remember administering anesthesia in rooms so tiny that when you went to relieve the anesthesiologist inside, that person had to get out first before you could squeeze yourself into the space. There was just enough room for the anesthesiologist to stand in place, never mind a space for a chair.

A dream space for the anesthesiologist.

All that discomfort and disrespect for the anesthesiologist may be changing. The New York Times has written about a revolution in operating room design. The article follows the OR remodels taking place at the Medical University of South Carolina. Led by Dr. Scott T. Reeves, the chair of the department of anesthesia and perioperative services at the hospital, they are making OR's that are bigger and far more accommodating for all the staff. They even take into account how to future proof the new rooms, deciding where to place bulky equipment like X-rays and robotic surgery that are used with increasing frequency during operations.

This is a far more professional way to design the operating rooms than what I've witnessed in the past. I remember when we were opening a new wing of the hospital and the anesthesia department had its first chance to see how the operating rooms would look. We had absolutely no input into the space during the design phase. They never asked for nor received any input from the anesthesiology department. Needless to say, the placement of the anesthesia equipment was suboptimal, almost dangerously so. 

Upon review of the blueprints, we noted that the rooms were drawn with plenty of space around the operating table for the surgeon. However, the anesthesia machines and carts were not drawn to a realistic scale and were squeezed into the corners of the rooms. Our anesthesia machines were easily twice the width and depth of the models that were used in the blueprints. To this day, we still have problems with placing the machines in the proper locations to ensure patient safety. But the surgeons have plenty of space to do their work though. 

I'm glad hospitals like MUSC, Stanford, and Loma Linda are not forgetting the needs of all the staff in the operating rooms. Surgeons may think they walk on water in the OR, but without consideration for all the other professionals in the OR, they and their patients would sink pretty quickly.

Monday, April 26, 2021

ASA Gets Sued For Scientific Article


Pacira BioSciences, the maker of Exparel, a liposomal bupivacaine, has sued the American Society of Anesthesiologists and writers in the journal Anesthesiology for economic damages. They are seeking a retraction of the articles. The articles involved in the lawsuit appeared in the February 2021 issue.

According to Pacira, the papers in question disputed their assertion that liposomal bupivacaine is superior to plain bupivacaine. The articles exposed possible biases in research that originally led the company to tout the superiority of Exparel over bupivacaine. Previous papers claimed that Exparel achieved increased analgesia 24 hours after injection. However further study of the data showed that it did not meet the relevant threshold to make this statement.

Other biases leading the FDA to approve Exparel include the company submitting studies comparing the superior action of the drug to placebo. This is an easy thing to prove as it most likely will be better than injecting saline into the body. However when the company conducted research comparing Exparel to other local anesthetics like ropivacaine or nonliposomal bupivacaine, it failed to show increased effectiveness.

Why would a company sue the ASA over studies questioning its drugs? As always, just follow the money. When Exparel was approved by the FDA, sales at the company increased double digits annually, reaching over $400 million in 2019. One dose of Exparel costs $334 compared to only $3 for regular bupivacaine. Yes Exparel costs over 100x more than nonliposomal bupivacaine. To promote this costly drug, the company over the last decade has spent over $25 million to 27,000 physicians for speaking fees and nonaccredited educational events ie/fancy dinners at the local steakhouse and free gifts and rounds of golf.

In the lawsuit, Pacira claims it, "has suffered and will continue to suffer significant pecuniary harm as both existing and potential customers who have seen the disparaging articles, have either canceled contracts with Exparel, declined to purchase Exparel, or are considering removing Exparel from hospital formularies."

I want to congratulate the ASA for publishing some hard hitting articles that will help patient care and improve healthcare economics. However I also remember that there were some MOCA Minute questions in the past that stated liposomal bupivacaine is superior. I hope the writers of MOCA Minute go back and review these questions in light of the new research. ASA, keep up the good work to keep us anesthesiologists well informed and patients safe.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Tesla Crash Kills Anesthesiologist

A Tesla that was supposedly on Autopilot crashed into a tree near Houston on April 16, killing both passengers. It's been revealed that one of the passengers is William Varner, MD, an anesthesiologist who worked at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Texas. Now there is some controversy regarding this tragic accident.

Initially, it was reported that the crash occurred when two men were trying out the Autopilot feature in the Tesla. When the police investigated the incident, they reported that nobody was in the driver's seat. One was in the front passenger seat and one was in the backseat. They said they were almost 100% sure of their findings.

The crash was so intense that it took the firefighters over four hours and 32,000 gallons of water to put it out. It was complicated by the nature of the flame, which was an electrical fire, not the usual gasoline fire that firefighters are more used to. The fire was so stubborn that the firemen had to call Tesla for advise on how to extinguish it. By the time the fire burned out, the vehicle was just a metal carcass, almost unrecognizable. 

When news of the accident came out, Tesla's stock price dropped immediately when the stock market opened. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, then quickly came to the rescue of his company.

He claims that the Tesla in the accident didn't have its Autopilot featured turned on prior to the crash. In addition, that car didn't purchase the complete Full Self Driving features that costs an extra $10,000. Therefore it's not the cars fault that it crashed into the tree. Somehow two people were in the car and nobody was in the driver's seat when it was moving but the Autopilot wasn't on. Not sure how to square these claims and counterclaims.

When I first read this story a few days ago, I thought it was just another case of good ole boys doing stupid things late at night after having too many drinks. Now that we know one of the victims is a respected anesthesiologist, it makes me question the entire assertion about the police findings. Guess we'll hear more when the investigation continues. 

RIP Dr. Varner.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

CRNA's Take Over America


The American Society of Anesthesiologists' worst nightmare is now at hand. Due to clever promotion from the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, the vast majority of patients in the U.S. can be sedated by CRNA's without any physician supervision. According to the AANA, there are now 42 states that do not require the CRNA's to take direction from any doctor.

The ASA thought they were doing well holding the opt-out of supervision states to just 17. Covid changed that calculus almost overnight. By pushing the narrative that critical care physicians are in short supply due to the pandemic, the AANA was able to convince a panic stricken federal government to drop the requirement for physician supervision during this health emergency. Unless a state specifically keeps the opt-in regulations, in essence the federal government has allowed all states to drop requirements for physician supervision.

This is just a temporary situation, right? Once we have herd immunity and everybody has gotten the vaccine, we can go back to the way we were, amiright? Uh huh. So far, government officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci don't seem to be in any hurry to declare the pandemic under control. Instead there are new variants popping up seemingly each week that require people to keep wearing their masks and consider getting annual booster shots to tame the virus. Though economies are starting to open up, control of the virus appears to be still a long ways off.

The longer the government and payers taste the elixir of CRNA billing, the more they are going to stay with the opt-out model. As our own group has experienced, CRNA's make anesthesia billing more viable as payers relentlessly pursue cost cutting measures. CRNA's can do 90% of the work anesthesiologists can do at half the price. Payers don't care about the anesthesia complications that arise from unsupervised nurses. That is the risk they are willing to take when confronted with the stark economic advantages of opting out. 

For a long time the ASA has had its finger in the dike lobbying to prevent more states from removing physician supervision. Unfortunately for the organization, and all patients and anesthesiologists, there probably won't be a happy ending to this story. The covid tsunami has swamped that wall and the last barrier to removing physician supervision has probably been breached.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Pandemic Takes Its Toll On Doctors' Incomes


There's no getting around the fact that the pandemic was devastating to the economic well being of nearly every industry last year. Healthcare was no exception. Between the loss of revenue from cancelled appointments and procedures to the increased expenses of paying for personal protective equipment and scarce hand sanitizer, many people in medicine saw their incomes slashed or evaporated.

Medscape has just released its 2021 edition of its annual Physician Compensation Report. It was drawn from a poll taken from October 2020 to February 2021. It therefore captures all the income made from 2020 and reflects on the continuing difficulty physicians were having during the severe winter surge in coronavirus cases.

The bottom line is that many physicians saw their incomes drop but hardship was not spread evenly. Anesthesiologists took a big hit with a five percent reduction in income compared to the year before. The average salary is now $378,000. However other fields like plastic surgery and oncology saw big jumps in income. So overall, physician income last year was about flat from the year before.

The average income numbers masked some really painful situations for doctors. Ninety-two percent of doctors said covid caused their incomes to decline, mainly due to loss of hours, patients, or even their jobs. In fact, 13% in the survey said they went for a period with no income at all, with the average length of time about three months. That is a scary prospect for people like doctors who have high expenses to meet like student loan debt and office overhead to maintain.

The top three reasons doctors said their incomes dropped were: reduction in hours, no annual pay raise, and reduced staff hours. However 45% said the pandemic didn't affect their salaries at all. If their incomes dropped, about 40% predict it will return to prepandemic levels within twelve months so at least the affects were only temporary.

Unfortunately for my group, our incomes are not likely to ever return to the salad days prior to covid. We dissolved our anesthesia group due to multiple economic weaknesses that became glaringly obvious during the pandemic. As Medscape's survey shows, employed physicians make a lot less than self-employed, an average of $52,000 less.

So our group's plight last year was not unique, even if it was still extremely painful to live through. We, like many other doctors across the nation, and the world, were hammered by the coronavirus both professionally and economically. So far we have made major adjustments and forged ahead to a totally different business model. We can only hope the coronavirus has been contained well enough for now so that we can get some back from what was lost for the last year and hope this truly is a once in a century medical phenomenon.