Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Misguided Judicial Sympathy

The ghoulish circus surrounding the tragic death of Jahi McMath continues. Alameda County Judge Evelio Grillo has ordered Children's Hospital Oakland to keep her on a ventilator for another week while the family attempts to find a facility that will receive the brain dead girl following complications from a tonsillectomy last week.

I don't know what Judge Grillo is trying to accomplish by prolonging this agony. Multiple physicians, including a court appointed neurologist from Stanford University, have declared Jahi brain dead. Very specific and universally accepted guidelines have been developed over the years to help doctors decide without a doubt when patients are dead. These rules were made to prevent this very type of madness that can occur when grieving families refuse to let loved ones go and doctors are afraid to step up and make the decision for the good of the deceased.

Judge Grillo has taken it upon himself to overturn decades of medical ethics teaching and ruled to keep a human body hooked up to machines despite the unanimous consensus of doctors that Jahi is never going to recover her neurologic functions. Does he think he is doing her family a favor by keeping their daughter on a machine? How can this family ever have closure and grieve properly when they see their child involuntarily twitch to the touch and continue to have a pulse that the machines are providing for her?

What do the actions of Judge Grillo say to doctors all over the country about how their medical decisions can be overturned at the whim of the family and a single non medically trained person wearing a black robe? This is the reason doctors are so leery of stopping treatments for the terminally ill, or in this case deceased, even though all hope of recovery is lost. We are the ones who are at the patients' bedsides every day and are in the best position to decide the best course of action. But because of legal actions like the ones being made by Judge Grillo, any disgruntled family member can make a simple call to a lawyer and effectively make a law judge the patient's caregiver despite having little to no knowledge of medicine. I also find it extremely ironic that the courts will allow a family to keep a dead patient alive on a machine yet at the same time have no difficulty declaring the killing of living fetuses as a constitutional right.

In the meantime the McMath family is trying to find a nursing home that will accept Jahi once she has a gastrostomy tube and a tracheostomy. I don't blame the hospital or its doctors for refusing to perform either of those procedures. It is ethically unacceptible to perform these surgical procedures on a deceased patient. The best thing the family can do is accept the tragedy that has beset them and donate her organs to others who will truly survive with their daughter's gifts. Only then can they come to peace with her fate. After that they can call their medical malpractice lawyer for issues that the courts really are supposed to adjudicate.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Five Hundred Thousand And Counting


It's hard to believe, but my humble little anesthesia blog has just surpassed 500,000 page views. Though that is pretty puny by Amazon, Google, or Facebook standards, it still blows me away that that many people are seeking some sort of information about anesthesia and anesthesiology. As you can see on the map above, virtually every country in the past four and a half years has visited this blog at least once. The only exceptions are the dictatorship of North Korea, who keeps virtually all of its citizens in a technology blackout, and the impoverished nations of sub-Sahara Africa and central Asia.

When I first started this blog on a lark back in July, 2009, it was in response to all of the negative news about anesthesia that was circulating in the media after the death of Michael Jackson at the hands of his pseudo doctor Conrad Murray. I felt that somebody with actual knowledge of anesthesia should have a say about how our drugs are actually supposed to work in the hands of competent and well trained physicians. Since then, I have ventured far and wide in the subjects that I have cared for and written about, everything from food, to humor, to money. Sounds a little like Maxim without the hot models on the homepage.

Ironically, the most popular post I have ever written isn't even about anesthesiology. It was a simple observation that I have frequently made in the operating room. Titled "The Dirtiest Part Of The Body," it has consistently garnered the most views month after month since shortly after it was published in June, 2012. I had no idea there were thousands of people who sat around and wondered which part of their anatomy was the most disgusting.

The second most frequently visited post is a little autobiographical essay that I wrote called, "Why I Chose Anesthesiology." I started that piece to help students and residents decide what they want to do with their lives. As anybody who has ever trained students know, one of the most common questions that is asked is why somebody decided to go into a certain medical field. Everybody has a different explanation but I thought writing this on a blog would disseminate the information more widely. And I was right. I get lots of correspondence from students asking for more information after they have read that article. From there, it turned into a series of posts that chronicled my struggles through residency and its eventual happy ending. I have received many emails complimenting me for my candid story of how difficult choosing the correct residency can be.

So I hope all you readers have enjoyed following me through the years as I've written about medicine, politics, money, and whatever I felt was worth an hour of my time to sit down and write. Thanks to all of you for keeping this blog going for all these years. There is nothing that motivates us blog writers more than the occasional reader comments, whether critical or appreciative. Nothing will drive a blog quicker to its death than apathy. I look forward to hearing from you readers as this blog rolls on into the new year.

Top Ten Blog Posts Of All Time

1. The Dirtiest Part Of The Body

2. Why I Chose Anesthesiology

3. How To Get Into An Anesthesiology Residency

4. Orthopedics vs. Anesthesia

5. The Difficult IV

6. Surgery, A Siren That Will Break Your Heart And Crush Your Soul

7. The Easy Way To Decide What Kind Of Doctor To Be

8. ASA President Defends Anesthesiologists, Feebly

9. Why Is The Operating Room So Damn Cold?

10. Stress Of Being An Anesthesiologist

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Why We Love Southern California

This is the reason we love living in SoCal. On this Christmas Day, it was nearly eighty degrees outside, perfect weather for going to the park after the kids had opened up all their presents. Hope everybody else had a great Christmas too.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Orthopedic Surgeons Are Dumb. Fact Or Fiction?

We often chide our orthopedic surgeons for their supposedly inferior intellects. After all, it doesn't appear that it would take too many brain cells to wield a hammer or direct a power drill. There are plenty of jokes about the half-witted orthopods: How does an internist keep elevator doors from closing shut--she uses her arm to stop the doors. How does a general surgeon stop the doors--he uses his foot. How does an orthopedic surgeon stop the doors--he uses his head. Then there is the viral video from a couple of years ago, Orthopedics vs. Anesthesia, that pretty much encapsulated our experiences with our orthopedic colleagues.

But how much of this belittling of the orthopods is justified? Surprisingly there is a study that looked into this very topic. An anesthesia colleague of mine passed along this paper that was published in BMJ.com (formerly British Medical Journal) from two years ago. Written by orthopedic surgeons, it attempts to put to rest the notion that orthopods are nothing more than big lumbering steroidal idiots.

Thirty-six orthopedic surgeons at three British hospitals voluntarily subjected themselves to a Mensa intelligence exam along with a hand grip test to measure their physical strengths. Forty male anesthetists (their terminology) volunteered to do the same. Female anesthetists were excluded because the researchers couldn't find enough female orthopedic surgeons for comparison. A formal IQ test was not performed due to its complexity. Therefore the results are not directly comparable to a real IQ test and the numbers do not reflect the test takers' IQ.

The results showed that the surgeons scored slightly higher than the anesthetists on the intelligence test, with a mean of 105.19 vs. 98.38. The orthopod researchers condescendingly expressed astonishment with the test scores by noting that anesthetists were frequently seen working on crossword and Sudoku puzzles. As for physical strength, it's no surprise that the surgeons won easily. It doesn't take a lot of hand strength to hold a pencil to complete my crossword puzzles.

Surprised by the study's conclusions? Perhaps we shouldn't be. Orthopedics is one of the most competitive residencies to attain. No longer is it the last bastion of college jocks who weren't quite good enough to make it onto the varsity football team. It takes a lot of smarts for an orthopedic residency program to even consider a candidate. Having said that, in the paper's scatter gram of test scores, there is one anesthetist who scored only 60 on the exam. I wonder how much this one individual skewed the results since there were so few participants to begin with.

So next time you think about using monosyllabic words to communicate with your orthopedic surgeons, remember that he maybe hiding his brilliant acumen behind a humble facade. Or maybe not.

Monday, December 16, 2013

A New Way To Give Anesthesia For Colonoscopies

Now here is a new way to give anesthesia for a colonoscopy. I didn't know that the brachial plexus reached all the way down to the large intestine. I must have missed that class in residency.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The HP iPAQ. That Is Not A Typo

Recently I was cleaning out my old electronics drawer (every guy has an old electronics drawer full of stuff that he can't bear to discard) and I came across an old device that I hadn't given a second thought to in years, my old HP iPAQ powered by Microsoft's Pocket PC. This was HP's answer to the successful Palm Pilot and a precursor of the iPhone and iPad. I'm surprised HP never sued Apple for trademark infringement.

Out of curiosity I juiced up its removable battery overnight then powered it on. After a couple of minutes when nothing happened and I thought the machine was truly dead, the screan turned on. Oh the memories started flooding back. When I had this thing in the early 2000's, it was the cooliest device around. While others were merely carrying around iPods that could only play music, my iPAQ could play MP3's, surf the internet, send emails, and do pretty much anything a Windows desktop can do. Microsoft even included Pocket PC versions of Excel and Word, a marketing strategy that it continued when it introduced Windows RT tablets last year.

And just like Windows RT, the Pocket PC operating system is a memory hog. The iPAQ comes with less than 64 MB of memory. That's right, MEGABYTES. Only power users using desktop workstations had access to gigabytes of memory at that time. MS was able to squeeze in a minimized version of its desktop OS but only by consuming nearly half of the machine's memory. Luckily, unlike an iPad, the iPAQ has an SD card slot at the top. I tried inserting a 32 GB card but it wasn't recognized. But when I put in a 512 MB card, it read it right away. It seems ludicrous nowadays that a 512 MB memory card can be useful for anything. But that will hold about 100 MP3 songs which was far better than toting around a bunch of CD's and a CD player that some anesthesiologists had to use at that time.

After playing around with it awhile, I remembered why I stopped using the iPAQ. First of all, this version did not include cellular functions so it was basically just a PDA. Other versions of the iPAQ did have cell phone functions though. Then its ability to subsitute for an iPod was severely compromised by a loose headphone port. I have to fiddle with the headphone jack for it to seat properly in the port and then it will only play out of one speaker instead of stereo. Finally the data port on the bottom broke loose, making it impossible to charge and sync information directly. I can exchange information by swapping out the SD card and I can charge the battery with the separate battery charger but it is a pain. Removing the battery to recharge it erases all the previous settings and I have to start all over again when I turn it back on.

So there you go, a report on everything you've always wanted to know about a ten year old HP iPAQ. It was far more functional than the old Palms and Apple Newtons. With its touch enabled color screen and included stylus, internet connection, Bluetooth capability, media player, and functional versions of Word and Excel, it seemed like it was an inspiration for the iPhone which would be introduced in just a few years. The iPAQ was truly ahead of its time.



Saturday, November 30, 2013

I Knew The ASA Is Just Another Money Making Enterprise

The American Society of Anesthesiologists bills itself as a standard bearer for anesthesiologists. With its lofty, and oft repeated, statements about patient safety and anesthesia advocacy, the organization comes across as saintly as the Vatican. So it's a shame they will demean themselves by running a stupid Black Friday sale.

I was dismayed when I got an email from the ASA on Black Friday hailing their "hottest sale of the year". Upon viewing the merchandise the group was marking down, it is obvious the selection is full of stuff nobody wants. An eight year old ACE booklet for $30? I guess it is a deal when it used to cost over $100 when new. But how many people really need a CME program from 2005? Medical information has expiration dates. That's why we spend billions of dollars on new research every year. These old CME booklets will not advance an anesthesiologist's knowledge base. More mature and stable information hopefully should have been retained from residency.

In fact, if the ASA really cared about physician advocacy, it should donate these old programs to anesthesia residencies all around the country. Any leftover books more than four years old should be handed out by the ASA for free. This will get the information to individuals who need it the most, our future anesthesiologists. The group should not be hawking its leftovers from the back of their warehouse to make a few extra bucks. But then again I guess they need the money to finish their sparkling new headquarters.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The ABA Made Me Do It

The American Society of Anesthesiologists recently published a list of procedures and practices that they feel have been overly used and abused. Among the items that the organization advises doctors to minimize is the compulsion to draw routine blood tests on young healthy patients, blood transfusions for patients who are young and hemodynamically stable, and the use of cardiac stress tests or pulmonary artery catheterization in low risk patients for procedures that will produce minimal cardiac disturbances.

This all sounds pretty commonsensical. I've had many conversations with our surgeons who insist on getting a full preop workup on young patients prior to a relatively benign operation. Just the other night, I received a young patient from the ER for a laparoscopic appendectomy. He was less than 40 years old. His H+P consisted of "No previous medical history" and "No previous surgical history". Yet the ER had drawn a complete metabolic panel, coag studies, and performed an ECG. Why do surgeons continue to request all these tests when it's so obvious that most are unnecessary and a waste of money?

The simple answer is that surgeons hate to have their cases delayed or cancelled because the anesthesiologist wants one more test before clearing the patient for a procedure. By painful and frustrating experience, almost all surgeons become habituated to overtesting their patients just so they can be sure that the anesthesiologist doesn't have any excuses to cancel a case and ruin everybody's day.

This leads to the question of why some anesthesiologists want so many studies before they will take a patient to the operating room. While I don't have direct knowledge of why some people do what they do, I submit that a fundamental reason for this action is because we were all horribly traumatized by the American Board of Anesthesiology during our oral examinations prior to receiving our board certification. Virtually every anesthesiologist remembers the horror story of that experience. You study for months at a time, spend thousands of dollars on board prep courses, then fly to a city far away to get grilled by four distinguished strangers for nearly one hour straight on esoteric subjects you hope you will never encounter in real life.

As part of this examination, you are asked by the executioners, er I mean examiners, what kind of lab work you want before allowing a patient into the operating room to continue the exam scenario. Almost automatically we all want to have every blood work and cardiac exam possible. It is so much easier to get every lab done before taking the patient to the OR than to discover that you missed a crucial piece of information once the patient goes under the knife. Heaven forbid that the patient starts bleeding out on the OR table because you didn't think the patient needed a PT/PTT and it turned out she has a Factor XI deficiency. Now you're stuck with an unstable patient in the OR with no clue as to why the patient is oozing from every cut surface in the body, and most likely you also didn't bother getting a Type and Cross to the blood bank too. FAIL.

You'll have nobody to blame but yourself if on the physical exam in another hypothetical preop you hear a heart murmur and the patient says he's had mitral valve prolapse for years but is asymptomatic and you don't do anything about it. Then during surgery the patient becomes unstable because in reality he has severe mitral regurgitation and pulmonary hypertension. At that point you are scrambling to save your skin by calling for an emergency TEE instead having an echo done before surgery and hoping you still have a rat's ass of a chance of passing this exam, which you probably don't.

What about all the expenses and potential complications of performing so many tests on patients who most likely don't need them? Well, in these simulations, cost is never a factor. You may have to justify the need for a test based on your examinations, but money is never an excuse. As a matter of fact, if you omit a test because you say the cost doesn't justify the benefits, you will unerringly be led down a path where you absolutely should have performed that preop test but now it's too late and the patient died on the table. And it will be ALL YOUR FAULT, you penny pinching board failing loser.

So it is understandable why some anesthesiologists continue to be haunted by the what ifs in their daily practice. After being scarred for life by the ABA, it just makes sense that most anesthesiologists will want multiple preop tests performed with little regard for necessity. It is simply better to be safe than sorry. If anybody complains about the expense, tell them to take it up with the ABA.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Simple Test To Assess Physiologic Age

As the patients we evaluate for surgery get ever sicker, we are always searching for better ways to assess a patient's health. Of course there are all sorts of expensive tests we can order to give us hard numbers and reassure us of our anesthetic plans. However in this age of cost cutting and insurance oversight, perhaps there are cheaper tests that will give us equivalent results.

A few years ago I wrote about an article in the ASA Newsletter that described a couple of bedside techniques to help decide if a patient is safe to undergo surgery. They both have the advantage of requiring nothing more than a blood pressure and a pulse. Nothing simpler or cheaper than that.

Now there is another simple test that can be performed quickly and cheaply in preop. Written up in the Wells blog of the New York Times, this new test was developed in Norway and rapidly assesses the oxygen delivery capacity of a patient. Oxygen delivery is one way of determining a patient's cardiovascular health and physiologic age. The researchers were able to whittle all the different physiologic measurements of their 5,000 test subjects down to a test with only seven questions that can reliably decide oxygen delivery. Three of the questions ask about the exercise habits of the subject. Other questions include sex of the person, age, waist size, and baseline pulse rate. After trying out this test, it seems that the quantity and quality of exercise made very little difference in my calculated physiologic age. Whether I worked out less than or greater than thirty minutes each time made no change in the final calculation. But varying my waist size or pulse rate made much more meaningful changes. This makes sense since most people can achieve a smaller waist size or slower heart rate by exercising regularly.

So next time you see a patient in preop who you want to delay a case to get one more test prior to clearance, try some of these simple and noninvasive methods. This may save the patient from another expense and prevent your reputation from taking a hit as the anesthesiologist who likes to cancel cases.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Anesthesiologists Are Tethered

Anesthesiology is great. Anesthesiologists make a lot of money and have an envious lifestyle. Isn't that why it is such an aspiring field for medical students? However, one aspect of anesthesiology that students and residents may not be fully aware of is that we are strictly tethered to the hospital. Almost all anesthesiologists, if we don't spend our call nights in the hospital, have to be able to get there from home within thirty minutes. The reason for this is that we may have to come in for a trauma or an emergency obstetric case. In such situations, minutes can mean the difference between life and death. This restriction can severely affect our quality of life and spending choices.

The TV show "House Hunters" illustrate this issue. One episode was about Joey, an anesthesiologist in Wilmington, NC. The doctor's search for his new home were restricted by having to live within a few minutes of his hospital. This may not be a problem if one lives in a small town. I grew up in a rural hamlet in the Midwest. Driving thirty minutes outside of town led to cow tipping territory already.

But if somebody wants to live in a traffic plagued city like Los Angeles, living thirty minutes from the hospital may put one only about five miles away. Thus compromises have to be made--life plans may need to be altered. In LA, anesthesiologists who can afford to live near the nicer hospitals on the Westside, like in Beverly Hills or Santa Monica, may have to squeeze into smaller homes. They may have to pay for their kids to go to expensive private schools. There may not be more than a few square feet of lawn for children to play in. If they want to have a nicer home with a bigger yard and better public schools, they may actually have to transfer to a different hospital to stay within the thirty minute radius.

So yes, anesthesiologists have a nice lifestyle. Just remember that the anesthesia lifestyle may include a view of the hospital from your bedroom window.