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You’re a board-certified anesthesiologist. You’ve graduated from a residency program in which you learned the nuances of preoperative, intraoperative, and postoperative anesthesia practice. Yet at times, surgeons or patients will ask you to do something counter to your medical judgment.
Individuals would never board a Boeing 787 aircraft and tell the pilot what to do, but individuals will try to influence their anesthesiologist.
Let’s look at some examples:
WHEN SURGEONS TRY TO TELL THE ANESTHESIOLOGIST WHAT TO DO:
- “This patient’s not too sick. You’re wrong to cancel his surgery.” In an example of this scenario, an orthopedic surgeon tries to convince you that the 65-year-old obstructive sleep apnea patient with a BMI of 40 who never walks further than the distance from his couch to his kitchen table is “not that sick,” and that you should not cancel the patient’s rotator cuff repair at a freestanding outpatient surgery center. Trust your training and your intuition. You believe the patient is high risk in terms of his airway, his breathing, his cardiac status, and his potential for post-operative complications. You’re trained in perioperative medicine. The orthopedic surgeon is trained in the management of joint and bone disorders. Tell the surgeon that the patient needs to have cardiac clearance prior to any general anesthetic, and that the case needs to be done in a hospital setting rather than at a freestanding surgery center.
- “Just do MAC (Monitored Anesthesia Care) anesthesia for this case, but make sure he’s asleep. My patient doesn’t want to hear anything.” In an example of this scenario, a surgeon schedules an inguinal hernia repair as a MAC anesthetic. The surgeon intends to supplement your intravenous (IV) sedation with local anesthetic at the surgical site. The surgeon told the patient to expect “a twilight sleep during the surgery.” You discuss this with the surgeon, who requests you, “Just give the patient sedation with propofol.” Per the American Society of Anesthesiologists Continuum of Depth of Sedation, if a patient is unarousable even with painful stimulation, that is a general anesthetic. In contrast, if a patient shows purposeful response following repeated or painful stimulation, that is deep sedation. It’s possible to infuse propofol and keep a patient purposefully responsive, but very few of us do this. Propofol infusions are typically used to make our patients sleep, and most propofol infusions cross the American Society of Anesthesiologists line into general anesthesia. If there is a complication or a bad outcome after the surgery, and you delivered general anesthesia when the operating room schedule said MAC and your preoperative anesthesia note stated the anesthesia plan was MAC, then you’re at medical-legal risk for delivering a deeper anesthetic than what was documented on the schedule and on your anesthetic plan.
- “Can you do an axillary block for this finger surgery?” In an example of this scenario, the surgeon requests an axillary block for a debridement of a finger surgery. You’re comfortable placing ultrasound-assisted regional anesthetic blocks, but you’re not confident with this particular block. You discuss other options with the surgeon, and suggest he places a digital block, which is more specific and incurs less risks than the axillary block. He pushes back, wanting you to do the axillary block. But if you don’t want to do the block, you don’t have to. You’re in charge of the anesthetic. You make the decision. The case proceeds with intravenous sedation, the surgeon complies with your request and blocks the base of the finger with local anesthesia, and the patient does fine.
- “This patient doesn’t need an arterial line (or a central venous pressure line).” In an example of this scenario, an 70-year-old woman with aortic stenosis is about to undergo an exploratory laparotomy for a perforated bowel. You’re concerned about maintaining her cardiac output, blood pressure, and blood volume during the surgery, and decide she needs an arterial line prior to induction and an internal jugular CVP after induction. The surgeon, in a hurry to proceed with the laparotomy, tells you neither of these lines is necessary. Your answer? Because you’re the expert in perioperative medicine, you tell him you need those lines and you will put them in. If there is a death or a dire cardiovascular complication, you’ll be the physician who will face the criticism if you did not place the lines. Blaming the surgeon will not protect you.
- After the conclusion of a surgery, the surgeon says, “What are you waiting for? Extubate the patient. She is bucking and coughing. Extubate the patient!” In an example of this scenario, after the conclusion of a tonsillectomy, you turn off the anesthetics. The patient eventually coughs and bucks on the endotracheal tube, but has not opened her eyes. When you open her eyelids, you note that her gaze is dysconjugate. You’re concerned that if you extubate the trachea, this still-emerging patient could develop laryngospasm. The surgeon then says, “When are you going to extubate? All this coughing is raising the blood pressure, and will cause bleeding and I’ll have a complication.” What should you do? Anesthesia practice must always follow the priorities of A-B-C, or Airway-Breathing-Circulation. You’re in charge of the airway. The endotracheal tube is your friend until the patient opens her eyes, is awake and responsive, and can maintain her own airway. Take out the breathing tube when you’re ready, not when the surgeon asks you to.
- Near the conclusion of surgery the surgeon says, “I’d like you to please extubate this patient deep.” In an example of this scenario, a patient has just received a five-hour general anesthetic for a facelift. As in the example above, the surgeon is concerned that coughing or bucking on the endotracheal tube at emergence will elevate the blood pressure and cause increased postsurgical bleeding. What should you do? Again, follow your training and experience. Anesthesia practice must always follow the priorities of A-B-C, or Airway-Breathing-Circulation. You’re in charge of the airway. The endotracheal tube is your friend until your patient opens her eyes, is awake and responsive, and can maintain her own airway. Certain slender, healthy patients are safe to extubate deeply, but this author is unconvinced of the benefit/risk analysis of deep extubation. You may make the surgeon happy, and you may continue to have a safe airway under general anesthesia in the absence of the endotracheal tube, but what if you don’t? What if the airway is poorly maintained in this patient after this five-hour surgery, when her entire head and jaw are wrapped up in a bulky facelift dressing? My advice is to take out the breathing tube when you’re ready, not when the surgeon asks you to.
- “Just give the patient a little bit of anesthesia, because my procedure will only last 10 minutes.” In an example of this scenario, the surgeon requests you sedate a 210-pound woman with a Body Mass Index (BMI) = 36 for a 15-minute egg retrieval. Because of the brief and seemingly trivial nature of the procedure, the gynecologist requests an anesthetic free of any airway tubes. You assess the patient and her airway, and decide you’ll need to use a laryngeal mask airway (LMA), with an endotracheal tube ready to go if the woman’s ventilation on the LMA is suboptimal. You explain to the surgeon that you’re doing what is safe, despite the requests the surgeon made. On obese, elderly, pediatric, or sicker patients, there are simple surgeries, but there are no simple anesthetics. Rely on your experience and training, and do the anesthetic by the standard of care.
- “I’d like to do this procedure in my office operating room, not in a surgery center or the hospital.” In an example of this scenario, the surgeon has a patient he’d only like to operate on in his office. You’ve worked at his office before, and you know his office operating room does not have an anesthesia machine. Your technique there is limited to IV sedation without any airway tubes or ventilation. You discover that the patient is an obese 45-year-old woman with a BMI = 32, and the planned procedure is implantation of a maxillary bone graft. Your concern is that you will not be able to safely sedate or anesthetize this woman for this oral surgery without a breathing tube or an anesthesia machine. The surgeon objects, and says that the woman does not have enough money to pay for the procedure to be done at the local outpatient surgery center, and that’s why he needs to do it in the office. You stand firm, and kindly refuse to do the anesthetic in his office.
WHEN PATIENTS TRY TO TELL THE ANESTHESIOLOGIST WHAT TO DO:
- “I don’t want a breathing tube into my windpipe and voice box because I’m a singer and I don’t want my voice ruined.” In an example of this scenario, a 35-year-old 250-pound man with a BMI of 34 who sings in a rock ‘n roll band is about to have a lumbar laminectomy. He does not want to be intubated. He read about anesthesia on the Internet, and he wants you to use an LMA instead of an endotracheal tube. Your response? You advise him that per your experience and training, his only safe airway management is with an endotracheal tube, not with an LMA. You tell him that yes, he will have a sore throat after surgery, and the irritation to his vocal cords may cause a temporary hoarse voice. You advise him that the duration of the hoarse voice should be no more than several days or a week or two, and that it’s rare for any voice change to be permanent. You advise him that he can consent to the endotracheal tube with these risks, or he can refuse. If he refuses the appropriate airway tube management, you will decline to give him anesthesia today.
- “I want to be awake for my surgery, so I can watch and talk to the surgeon.” In an example of this scenario, a 55-year-old woman scheduled for a knee arthroscopy wants to be awake for the surgery. She is visibly nervous, and tells you she wants to be awake because she is afraid of dying during a general anesthetic. You discuss the options with the patient, which include spinal anesthesia, epidural anesthesia, or regional blocks, each accompanied by intravenous sedation if necessary, which will permit her to be comfortable and awake. She declines each of these. She just wants “some medicine in the IV to take the edge off while I’m still awake, just like I did with my last colonoscopy.” You discuss with her that knee surgery is more painful than a colonoscopy. You discuss with her that she will need more anesthesia than she is requesting. You leave the bedside and talk to the surgeon about the options. The surgeon is agreeable with injecting local anesthesia into the knee, as a supplement to the intravenous sedation you will administer. The patient, the surgeon, and you all agree with this plan. You also give the patient informed consent that if she is not comfortable, she may need more anesthesia medications from you and she may have to go to sleep. Begrudgingly, she consents. Five minutes into the surgery, despite 200 micrograms of IV fentanyl, 6 milligrams of IV midazolam, and appropriate 2% lidocaine injections into the knee joint by the surgeon, the patient is uncomfortable, crying, and in a state of panic. You begin an infusion of propofol, she goes to sleep, and the ordeal is over. She awakens in the PACU without complications and without complaints. In my experience, many patients who demand or insist on being awake during surgery are patients who hope to control circumstances in the middle of surgery, rather than trusting their anesthesiologist and surgeon. Don’t be surprised if these patients wind up requiring general anesthetics. Make sure you have preoperative informed consent for general anesthesia as a back up, because it’s likely you’ll need to administer it.
- A patient who’s been in the PACU (Post Anesthesia Care Unit) for an hour tells you, “I want more intravenous narcotics.” In an example of this scenario, a patient who had an arthroscopic anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction is complaining of 8/10 pain ninety minutes postoperatively. He’s received 300 micrograms of fentanyl and two Percocet in the PACU, and says he is still uncomfortable. You go to his bedside, and witness that he is in no acute distress. His vital signs are normal, with a respiratory rate of 12 breaths per minute. He refused a femoral nerve block prior to surgery. Because he’s been medicated, the option of having him sign a consent and performing a femoral nerve block now is out of the question. Your assessment is that his pain score is inflated. One man’s 8/10 may be another’s 3/10. His respiratory rate is already low normal, and he’s received the adjunct of 30 mg of IV Toradol, as well as the Percocet. At this point in my practice I have the following conversation with the patient: I tell them, “You’ve already had the standard pain-relieving medications, including the oral medication the surgeon prescribed for home use. One option now would be to hospitalize you so that you can continue to receive IV narcotics, but we don’t hospitalize healthy patients after routine ACL reconstruction. A second option is for you to stay here in the PACU and continue to receive IV narcotics, but that makes little sense because you cannot continue IV narcotics at home. So the remaining option is for you to be discharged on the oral medication Percocet that the surgeon prescribed.” There’s a point after routine outpatient surgeries where there’s no rationale for the continued administration of IV narcotics, and the patient needs to be discharged home on their oral medications.
- Your awake patient in the PACU says, “I’m so anxious. Can I have more of that Versed you gave me before surgery?” In an example of this scenario, a patient with chronic anxiety wakes up from an uneventful anesthetic with complaints of nervousness. The role of the PACU staff is to monitor Airway-Breathing-Circulation while tending to common postsurgical complaints such as pain and nausea until the anesthetics wear off sufficiently for discharge. In my residency, my professors taught me that benzodiazepines were valuable preoperatively but have no role in the PACU, and I still follow this principle. The PACU is a temporary destination prior to discharging a patient home or to their hospital room. Sedating these patients with Versed or any other benzodiazepine in the PACU will prolong their recovery and is not indicated. The best treatment for PACU anxiety is often to discharge the patient out of the PACU.
- Your next patient is a child. His parent tells you, “I want to be in the operating room when my son goes to sleep. He needs me.” In an example of this scenario, the mother of a 3-year-old patient wants to accompany her son into the operating room to emotionally support the boy during a mask induction with sevoflurane. The scheduled procedure is bilateral ear pressure-equalizing tubes surgery. This author believes that parent(s) can be a distraction during the potentially dangerous time of mask induction of anesthesia. I’ve done thousands of pediatric inductions without parental presence, and I never wished I had a layperson there at my elbow while I was trying to assure safe airway management. Letting the child watch an iPad as they separate from their parents and engage in the anesthesia induction is a modern solution to this problem.
- A preoperative patient with a dangerous airway problem (think ankylosing spondylitis or Treacher Collins syndrome) tells you, “I refuse to have an awake intubation. I need the general anesthesia first before you put in that breathing tube.” In an example of this scenario, an 18-year-old boy with Treacher Collins syndrome and a very abnormal airway refuses awake intubation for an emergency appendectomy. Your assessment of his airway is that you will not be able to visualize the vocal cords with either traditional laryngoscopy or video laryngoscopy. You’re uncertain you can mask ventilate the patient if he is asleep either. You tell him he can be sedated and relaxed for an awake intubation, but you cannot administer general anesthetic prior to his intubation, for safety reasons. Per a study on this very topic, you decide to use dexmedetomidine , which has minimal respiratory depression, to sedate him, and you acquire the assistance of a second anesthesiologist to monitor the patient and manage the sedation while you apply topical anesthesia to the airway and drive the fiberoptic scope. After thirty minutes of work, the two of you manage to successfully insert the endotracheal tube, and the surgery can begin.
The overwhelming majority of anesthesiologist-surgeon and anesthesiologist-patient interactions are positive. But when conflicts such as these examples occur, the take-home messages are:
- YOU ARE THE BOARD-CERTIFIED SPECIALIST IN ANESTHESIA. IT IS YOUR JOB TO MAKE THE ANESTHESIA DECISIONS.
- SURGEONS ARE SPECIALISTS IN SURGERY. THEY ARE NOT SPECIALISTS IN ANESTHESIA OR PERIOPERATIVE MEDICINE.
- YOU PAY YOUR OWN MALPRACTICE INSURANCE, AND YOU HAVE TO ANSWER TO THE CONSEQUENCES IF YOU GET SUED. IF YOU ARE SUED, THE KEY QUESTION WILL BE “DID THE ANESTHESIOLOGIST PRACTICE AT THE STANDARD OF CARE?” REPLYING THAT THE SURGEON OR THE PATIENT TALKED YOU INTO A SUB-STANDARD PRACTICE IS NO DEFENSE. IT IS YOUR JOB TO MAKE THE ANESTHESIA DECISIONS.
- THE CORRECT ANESTHETIC PLAN IS THE SIMPLEST ANESTHETIC PLAN THAT ALL THREE PARTIES (THE SURGEON, THE PATIENT, AND YOU) AGREE TO.
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