In a provocative op-ed in Anesthesiology News (free membership required), Dr. Karen Sibert, past president of the California Society of Anesthesiologists, dared to ask if anesthesiologists are truly practicing like physicians, or merely doing nurses' work. Full disclosure: I know Dr. Sibert personally and have worked with her in the past.
She asks why are anesthesiologists responsible for drawing up drugs? Why are anesthesiologists the ones to hang medications on IV pumps? Why are anesthesiologists charting IV fluids and urine outputs? Do you ever see internists grab a syringe and check out drugs from a Pyxis to give to a patient? Of course not. They write an order and the pharmacist and nurse carries it out. Oncologists don't hang drugs themselves. They give orders to a nurse who then loads the IV pump to give to the patient. When a surgeon asks for preincision antibiotics, who does he give the orders to? That's right. It's the anesthesiologist who mixes it up and administers it to the patient. How did anesthesiologists' duties become so mundane and nursing oriented?
Dr. Sibert goes goes into a little bit of history of anesthesiology to explain the current conundrum. In the early 1900's, most surgeons would use a nurse to administer sedation in the operating room. The same nurse might then follow the surgeon to the office later in the day for office duties. There was no such thing as an anesthesiologist involved. Then along came Ralph Waters, MD.
Dr. Waters was one of the pioneers of anesthesiology, a lion of the specialty. He treated anesthesiology as a true science, with rigorous research and observations. He began the first anesthesiology residency in the United States, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1927.
But unfortunately the practice of providing anesthesia had by then been strongly established as a nursing duty supervised by a surgeon. It took decades of work before anesthesiology was officially recognized as a physician specialty and fully independent of a surgeon's purview.
Dr. Sibert noted the difference between the European model of giving anesthesia versus the American one. Europeans require two professionals present during critical phases of the case, either an anesthesiologist and an assistant or an anesthesiologist and a nurse. The US does not have this requirement so a CRNA can do the job all by themselves without any supervision of an anesthesiologists.
European anesthesiologists are also much more involved in the patient care throughout their hospitalization, not just in the operating room. Patients are evaluated by anesthesiologists preop. They are then followed through the operating room, possible ICU stay, postop recovery, pain management, and even after discharge. The anesthesiologists act as a hospitalist or internist for the patient. This is the aim of the Perioperative Surgical Home that was so in vogue a few years ago. But most American anesthesiologists would rather quit than to have to follow their patients that thoroughly. ("If I wanted to be a hospitalist, I would have gone into medicine and become a hospitalist!")
Those are the kinds of responsibilities that medical students and residents are trained to excel. We're experts at evaluating the big picture to determine whether a patient can safely undergo anesthesia and to take care of them perioperatively. Why do so many anesthesiologists not want to broaden the scope of their practice and are satisfied with drawing up syringes of propofol and just get through the day?
Because it's easy, that's why. It takes hard work to really think about how to navigate a patient through preoperative preparations, surgery, and postop recovery. It's so much easier and more lucrative to just sit in the operating room and push syringes of drugs while a computer automatically charts all the vital signs. We're being paid to do nurses work while making a doctors salary.
Is it any wonder that surgeons look on with disdain when they peer over the ether screen and see anesthesiologists staring at their cellphones? Do you think surgeons care whether the person on the other side of the screen is a physician anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist as long as somebody is paying attention to their patients? It's only a matter of time before the insurance companies and hospital administrators realize this too and make their own adjustments.