WHAT ONE QUESTION SHOULD YOU ASK TO DETERMINE IF A PATIENT IS ACUTELY ILL?

the anesthesia consultant

Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board-certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.
email rjnov@yahoo.com
phone 650-465-5997

What one question should you ask to determine whether a patient has a serious medical problem? What one question must you ask to determine whether urgent intervention is required?

Imagine this scenario: You’re an anesthesiologist giving anesthesia care in the operating room to your second patient of the day. The Post Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU) nurse calls you regarding your first patient who is in the PACU following appendectomy. The nurse says, “Your patient Mr. Jones is still nauseated and very sleepy. I’ve medicated him with ondansetron and metoclopramide as ordered, but he’s still nauseated and sleepy.”

That one question would be: “What are his vital signs?”(This is a bit of a trick question, since you are asking not one question, but four or five. It’s as if you’re down to your last request from the Genie from Aladdin’s lamp, and you’re wishing for more wishes. As Robin Williams’ Genie character said in Disney’s Aladdin, “Three wishes, to be exact. And ixnay on the wishing for more wishes. That’s all. Three. Uno, dos, tres. No substitutions, exchanges or refunds.” )

The traditional four vital signs are the blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature. For anesthesiologists, surgeons, emergency room physicians, and ICU doctors, the fifth vital sign is the oxygen saturation or O2 sat. Some publications tout the pain score (on a 1-10 scale) as a fifth vital sign. While I subscribe to the pain score’s importance, it’s of less value in most acute care situations than the O2 saturation.

Let’s return to the patient scenario. You ask the nurse, “What are the patient’s vital signs?”

The nurse answers, “His heart rate is 48, his blood pressure is 88/55, his O2 sat is 100, and his respiratory rate is 16.”

You answer, “His heart rate is too low and so is his blood pressure. Let’s give him 0.5 mg atropine IV now.”

Five minutes later the nurse calls back. The heart rate increased to 72 and the blood pressure is 110/77. The patient’s symptoms resolved as the vital signs normalized.

Let’s look at a second scenario. You drop off a 48-year-old hysterectomy patient in the PACU. The patient is awake, and her initial vital signs are BP 120/64, pulse 100, respirations 18, and O2 saturation 99%. You return to the operating room to initiate care for your next patient for a laparoscopy. Thirty minutes later, the PACU nurse calls you to report your first patient has increasing abdominal discomfort. Her repeat vital signs are: BP 110/80, pulse 130, respirations 26, and O2 saturation 99%. You’re concerned an intra-abdominal complication is brewing. Five minutes later, the nurse reports a third set of vitals. The patient’s heart rate continues to rise to 140. Her blood pressure is now 82/40, her respirations are 30, and her skin has become cold and moist to the touch. She’s unable to speak coherently and is losing consciousness. You can not leave the patient you are anesthetizing, but you call a fellow anesthesiologist to evaluate the patient in person, and prepare her for emergent re-operation.

The patient’s initial vital signs were stable, but the downward trend of her vital signs were a harbinger of the serious complication. Eventually the symptoms of abdominal pain and decreasing consciousness appeared, and confirmed the diagnosis of intra-abdominal hemorrhage and impending shock. The increased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, and increased respiratory rate were red flags early on.

Abnormal vital signs can indicate that a patient is acutely ill. Equally important to the value of each vital sign is the temporal trend in the vital signs. A vital sign trend increasing or decreasing from the normal range can validate that the patient is becoming acutely ill.

You may be thinking, why is Dr. Novak telling me vital signs are important? Everybody know vital signs are, well … vital.

My message to you is to seek out the vital signs, all of them, as essential clues in all patients.

As anesthesiologists, we spend our entire intraoperative clinical career staring at a patient’s vital signs on a video screen. When the blood pressure goes up, we act. When the blood pressure goes down, we act. When the heart rate goes up, we act, and when the heart rate goes down, we act. When oxygen saturation trends downward, we act. Because most intraoperative patients are unconscious, the patient’s verbal history—the traditional clues regarding acute illness—are unavailable. We can not ask our patient questions to determine whether vital sign changes are associated with symptoms of chest pain, shortness of breath, or neurologic deficits. We’re accustomed to treating patients by normalizing their vital signs.

Other healthcare providers lack this perspective. Nurses and non-acute-care physicians such as family practitioners and internists can fill a patient’s history chock full of other details so thick that the vital signs are buried. The five or six vital sign numbers are often obscured in pages of text. Most physician and nursing notes in an electronic medical record (EMR) are lengthy, and are many are copied and pasted from previous encounters. Each patient interview is a quiz bowl of medical history answers. The five or six vital sign numbers are a needle in the haystack of a modern medical history. The EMR in a clinic or a hospital can serve to worsen this plight, as vital signs are recorded by nurses and entered into nursing documents on the computer, and treating physicians may have to dig to find the correct page that lists vital signs. One possible benefit of an EMR is a proposed safety system that requires, for any abnormal vital sign entered into the computer, the nurse to document they have verbally informed a physician of that abnormal value. This system would assure that abnormal values are never ignored, and that an MD will assess whether further diagnostic or therapeutic steps need to be taken.

Ferret out the vital signs. In my career as a clinical anesthesiologist and anesthesia expert witness, I can’t recall one significant complication that wasn’t foretold by an increased or decreased heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, or temperature, a decreased O2 saturation, or an increased pain score.

Keep your eye on the vitals, and keep your patients out of trouble.

 

The most popular posts for laypeople on The Anesthesia Consultant include:

How Long Will It Take To Wake Up From General Anesthesia?

Why Did Take Me So Long To Wake From General Anesthesia?

Will I Have a Breathing Tube During Anesthesia?

What Are the Common Anesthesia Medications?

How Safe is Anesthesia in the 21st Century?

Will I Be Nauseated After General Anesthesia?

What Are the Anesthesia Risks For Children?

 

The most popular posts for anesthesia professionals on The Anesthesia Consultant  include:

10 Trends for the Future of Anesthesia

Should You Cancel Anesthesia for a Potassium Level of 3.6?

12 Important Things to Know as You Near the End of Your Anesthesia Training

Should You Cancel Surgery For a Blood Pressure = 178/108?

Advice For Passing the Anesthesia Oral Board Exams

What Personal Characteristics are Necessary to Become a Successful Anesthesiologist?

 

Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at ricknovak.com by clicking on the picture below:  

DSC04882_edited

 

 

WHY DOES ANYONE DECIDE THEY WANT TO BECOME AN ANESTHESIOLOGIST?

the anesthesia consultant

Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board-certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.
email rjnov@yahoo.com
phone 650-465-5997

A question anesthesiologists are commonly asked is, “Why did you want to become an anesthesiologist?”

Let’s assume a young man or woman has the discipline and intellect to attend medical school. Once that individual gains their M.D. degree, they will choose a specialty from a long line-up that includes multiple surgical specialties (general surgery, orthopedics, urology, neurosurgery, cardiac surgery, ophthalmology, plastic surgery, ear-nose-and-throat surgery), internal medicine, pediatrics, family practice, dermatology, radiology, invasive radiology, radiation oncology, allergy-immunology, emergency medicine, and anesthesiology.

Why choose anesthesiology? I offer up a list of the reasons individuals like myself chose this specialty:

  1. Anesthesiologists do acute care rather than clinic care or chronic care. Some doctors enjoy sitting in a clinic 40+ hours a week, talking to and listening to patients. Other doctors prefer acute care, where more exciting things happen moment to moment. It’s true that surgeons do acute care in the operating room, but most surgeons spend an equal amount of time in clinic, seeing patients before and after scheduled surgical procedures. Chronic care in clinics can be emotionally taxing. Ordering diagnostic studies and prescribing a variety of pills suits certain M.D.’s, but acute care in operating rooms and intensive care units is more stimulating. It’s exciting controlling a patient’s airway, breathing, and circulation. It’s exciting having a patient’s life in your hands. Time flies.
  2. Patients like and respect their anesthesiologist, and that feels good. Maybe it’s because we are about to take each patient’s life into our hands, but during those minutes prior to surgery, patients treat anesthesiologists very well. I tend to learn more about my patients’ personal lives, hobbies, and social history in those 10 minutes of conversation prior to surgery than I ever did in my internal medicine clinic.
  3. An anesthesiologist’s patients are unconscious the majority of time. Some anesthesiologists are attracted the this aspect. An unconscious patient is not complaining. In contrast, try to imagine a 50-hour-a-week clinic practice as an internal medicine doctor, in which every one of your patients has a list of medical problems they are eager to tell you about.
  4. There is tremendous variety in anesthesia practice. We take care of patients ranging in ages from newborns to 100-year-olds. We anesthetize patients for heart surgery, brain surgery, abdominal or chest surgeries, bone and joint surgeries, cosmetic surgery, eye surgery, urological surgery, trauma surgery, and organ transplantation surgery. Every mother for Cesarean section has an anesthetist, as do mothers for many vaginal deliveries for childbirth. Anesthesiologists run intensive care units and anesthesiologists are medical directors of operating rooms as well as pain clinics.
  5. Anesthesiologists work with a lot of cool gadgets and advanced technology. The modern anesthesia workstation is full of computers and computerized devices we use to monitor patients. The modern anesthesia workstation has parallels to a commercial aircraft cockpit.
  6. Lifestyle. We work hard, but if an anesthesiologist chooses to take a month off, he or she can be easily replaced during the absence. It’s very hard for an office doctor to take extended time away from their patients. Many patients will find a alternate doctor during a one month absence if the original physician is unavailable. This aspect of anesthesia is particularly attractive to some female physicians who have dual roles as mother and physician, and choose to work less than full-time as an anesthesiologist so they can attend to their children and family.
  7. Anesthesia is a procedural specialty. We work with our hands inserting IV’s, breathing tubes, central venous IV catheters, arterial catheters, spinal blocks, epidural blocks, and peripheral nerve blocks as needed. It’s fun to do these procedures. Historically, procedural specialties have been higher paid than non=procedural specialties.

What about problematic issues with a career in anesthesia? There are a few:

  1. We work hard. Surgical schedules commonly begin at 7:30 a.m., and anesthesiologists have to arrive well before that time to prepare equipment, evaluate the first patient, and get that patient asleep before any surgery can commence. After years of this, my internal alarm clock tends to wake me at 6:00 a.m. even on weekends.
  2. Crazy hours. Every emergency surgery—every automobile accident, gunshot wound, heart transplant, or urgent Cesarean section at 3 a.m. needs an anesthetist. Working around the clock can wear you out.
  3. The stakes are high if you make a serious mistake. In a clinic setting, an M.D. may commit malpractice by failing to recognize that a patient’s vague chest pain is really a heart attack, or an M.D. may fail to order or to check on an important lab test, leading to a missed diagnosis. But in an operating room, the malpractice risks to an anesthesiologist are dire. A failure in properly insert a breathing tube can lead to brain death in minutes. This level of tension isn’t for everyone. Some doctors are not emotionally suited for anesthesia practice.
  4. In the future, anesthesia doctors may gradually lose market share of their practice to nurse anesthetists. You can peruse other columns in this blog where I’ve discussed this issue.
  5. Anesthesiologists don’t bring any patients to a medical center. In medical politics, this can be problematic. Anesthesiologists have limited power in some negotiations, because we can be seen as service providers rather than as a source of new patient referrals for a hospital. Some hospital administrators see an anesthetist as easily replaced by the next anesthetist who walks through the door, or who offers to work for a lower wage.

The positive aspects of anesthesiology far outweigh these negatives.

Akin to the Dos Equis commercial that describes “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” I’d describe the profession of anesthesiology as “The Most Interesting Job in the World.”

And when you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.

 

The most popular posts for laypeople on The Anesthesia Consultant include:

How Long Will It Take To Wake Up From General Anesthesia?

Why Did Take Me So Long To Wake From General Anesthesia?

Will I Have a Breathing Tube During Anesthesia?

What Are the Common Anesthesia Medications?

How Safe is Anesthesia in the 21st Century?

Will I Be Nauseated After General Anesthesia?

What Are the Anesthesia Risks For Children?

 

The most popular posts for anesthesia professionals on The Anesthesia Consultant  include:

10 Trends for the Future of Anesthesia

Should You Cancel Anesthesia for a Potassium Level of 3.6?

12 Important Things to Know as You Near the End of Your Anesthesia Training

Should You Cancel Surgery For a Blood Pressure = 178/108?

Advice For Passing the Anesthesia Oral Board Exams

What Personal Characteristics are Necessary to Become a Successful Anesthesiologist?

 

 

LEARN MORE ABOUT RICK NOVAK’S FICTION WRITING AT RICK NOVAK.COM BY CLICKING ON THE PICTURE BELOW:

DSC04882_edited