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Some people have difficulty seeing the outstanding merits of physician anesthesiology. I understand where these opinions come from, but the phenomenon still bothers me.
Today I read a thoughtful and well-written essay in Anesthesiology News titled, Anesthesiologists-The Utility Players of the Medical Field written by anesthesiologist David Stinson MD from my native state of Minnesota. His thesis is that, like utility players on a baseball team, we are valuable but suffer an identity crisis. He writes, “Our specialty, anesthesia, has suffered an identity crisis for decades. Are we the ‘captain of the ship’ or is the surgeon? . . . It is never quite clear and the answer changes with location and context. Are we physicians or are we glorified advanced practice nurses?”
To me, the appropriate headline should read, “Anesthesiologists—the Most Valuable Players of the Medical Team.” I’d like to see an anesthesiologist saying, “I’m going to Disney World” at the end of the Super Bowl before picking up his (or her) MVP trophy.
Why would I say this? Two anecdotes will illustrate why I understand the problem. In the late 1970’s I was a third-year medical student at a prominent Midwestern medical school, where an unspoken rank system existed in the operating room. The surgical attendings were the kings, the students were the peasants, the nurses and techs were serfs, and the anesthesiologists were the whipping boys for the surgeons. I witnessed consistent verbal abuse, bullying, condescending barking commands, and lack of respect directed from surgeons toward anesthesiologists. One day I was scrubbed in as a retractor-holding medical student on a 12-hour esophagectomy, and at the conclusion of the procedure the attending surgeon removed his gloves and gown and left the room to talk to the family. Five minutes later, the patient had a cardiac arrest. The resuscitation was not successful, and the patient died. Afterward the surgeon bellowed his disapproval regarding how the anesthesia team had failed to keep the patient alive after he had spent all day “curing” the patient. It was an unforgettable experience to me, and one of the take-home messages was that I never wanted to be an anesthesiologist.
Fast-forward three years into the future, when I was an internal medicine resident at Stanford serving my medical intensive care unit rotation. The anesthesiology department ran the ICUs at Stanford during the 1980’s. The ICU attendings were charismatic, smart, decisive, impressive role models. The ICU attendings had respectful peer relationships with all the surgeons, including the private-practice cardiac surgeons whose post-operative patients were housed in the ICU. Morning rounds, evening rounds, and the eight hours in between were filled with action, procedures, upbeat emotions, and encouraging talk about the specialties of anesthesiology and critical care medicine. The Stanford anesthesia residents boasted of weekdays off after their nights on call, Learjet trips to harvest donor hearts for Dr. Norm Shumway’s cardiac transplant patients, weeklong trips to third-world countries to perform anesthetics on cleft lip and palate patients, and best of all, the excitement of inserting endotracheal tubes, arterial lines, central lines, Swan Ganz catheters, spinal and epidural needles into patients of all sizes and surgical needs. This was alluring to internal medicine residents. Each year a significant number of internal medicine residents applied for admittance to anesthesiology residencies, which is what I did. Were surgeons hollering at the anesthesiologists at Stanford? In a word . . . no. The department had the respect of the surgeons. This was the environment I grew up in, and the professional spirit we all should aspire to.
Here are 10 reasons why anesthesiologists should hold their heads high and never have a molecule of low self esteem around their medical center:
- All of acute care medicine is based on A-B-C, or Airway-Breathing-Circulation. Operating room medicine, intensive care medicine, emergency room medicine, trauma helicopter medicine, and battlefield medicine are all based on A-B-C, or Airway-Breathing-Circulation. Who are the experts of the A, or Airway? Anesthesiologists are the experts. There can be no acute care resuscitation without someone managing the airway, usually with an endotracheal tube. It’s true that other medical professionals have abilities to place endotracheal tubes, but none of them have the breadth of skills, techniques, and volume of attempts as anesthesiologists do. Hold your heads high. Read my column on bullying in the operating room. Don’t put up with condescending behavior from a surgeon. Surgeons know how to wield a scalpel. You know how to wield the most valuable tool of all medical equipment, the laryngoscope.
- It’s true that surgeons bring the patients to the operating room for surgery. It’s just as true that none of those patients would agree to the operations without having an anesthetic. The anesthesiologist’s role is vital.
- Clinic doctors are important. They manage primary care as well as outpatient specialty care. They make diagnoses and prescribe therapeutic medicines. Anesthesiologists also partake in clinic care in preoperative clinics and pain clinics. An anesthesiologist’s knowledge of internal medicine isn’t as comprehensive as a board-certified internist, but the consider the flip side: None of the internists can administer general anesthesia, regional anesthesia, or manage the A of the A-B-Cs like an anesthesiologist can. I was an internal medicine doctor who lacked these skills and then acquired them during anesthesia residency. Trust me—internists envy the skills of anesthesiologists.
- Anesthesiologists deal with life and death situations on a regular basis. Clinic doctors, including surgeons on their days in clinic, listen to and talk to patients. There is no peril in outpatient clinic medicine. On any given day at your job as an anesthesiologist you could be attending to a morbidly obese adult, a tiny child, a frail geriatric patient, or an emergency thoracic case. Your heart rate will climb as high as the patient’s, and you’ll manage the circumstances. Anesthesiologists are goalies at the Pearly Gates, and we should be proud of it.
- Physician anesthesiologists have a fascinating job. Anesthesiologists administer anesthetics to virtually every specialty: general surgery, cardiac surgery, neurosurgery, obstetrics, gynecology, otolaryngology, orthopedic surgery, podiatry, ophthalmology, plastic surgery, psychiatry for electroshock therapy, invasive radiologists, cardiologists, oral surgeons, dentists, and pediatric surgeons. The breadth of knowledge across specialties is unrivaled by any other physician.
- Who is the captain of the ship in the operating room? Is it the surgeon or is it the anesthesiologist? My advice is: don’t concede the role to your surgical colleague alone. He or she knows how to do the operation. You know how to do the anesthetic. It is a symbiotic relationship. Do not lay yourself down on the ground in reverence. In the words of the Eagles song “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “she can’t take you anywhere you don’t already know how to go.” If you see and feel yourself as the servant, second in command, that’s where you’ll find yourself . . . as the servant, second in command. Step up. Be an equal. Be in control of your domain, a critical domain.
- Physician anesthesiologists are well paid. Per U. S. News and World Report, an anesthesiologist is the highest paying job in America. Think about that. There are 325 million people in our country, and there are thousands of different job descriptions. Your profession is the highest paid. Be proud of that.
- Physician anesthesiologists are in demand. As I write this in 2018, I receive multiple emails per day seeking attending anesthesiologists for jobs around the USA. If you’re willing to relocate and be mobile, you’ll find numerous suitors competing for your services as an attending anesthesiologist. Per U.S. News and World Report, the unemployment rate for anesthesiologists is a paltry 0.5%.
- Physician anesthesiologists help people every day. You could be selling Coca Cola or cell phones or cell phone data networks or stocks. Would you be serving humanity as well if you were working in some business job? You have the opportunity to change lives for hundreds of patients per year.
- Maybe you’re worried that nurse anesthetists will take your job away. I have no crystal ball to foretell the future, but consider these things: (a) Most CRNAs work in anesthesia care team models with our physician anesthesiologist colleagues, and this MD-CRNA relationship is a well accepted model of patient care that will persist into the future; (b) Physician anesthesiologists are needed for leadership roles in clinical care, administration, committees, and quality assurance; and (c) Remember that you are a physician and CRNAs are not. Keep up your skills. The large medical systems of the future will tier their anesthesia coverage. Complex cases will always require MD anesthesiologists. It’s likely that simple cases such as cataracts, lymph node biopsies, and knee arthroscopies can be safely done with CRNA anesthesia. Continue to seek out and perform difficult anesthetic cases only an MD would feel comfortable doing. If you find yourself attending to only ASA I an ASA II patients for straightforward surgeries, you may indeed find your job taken by someone with less training. Instead, step up. Be proud of your training, your unique skills, the heritage of your profession, and the esteem of your standing among your fellow physicians.
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