The state of anesthesiology in 2018
Once again, it’s Physician Anesthesiologists Week, and it’s a great time to celebrate our specialty’s many successes and accomplishments. State Assemblymember Catherine Baker will present a resolution on the Assembly Floor on February 1 honoring our profession, and we’ll be there to receive it on your behalf.
But we’re wasting an opportunity if we don’t also take this week to consider the state of the specialty today, and what it could or should mean to be a physician anesthesiologist 20 or 30 years from now.
There is no question that a seismic shift is underway in healthcare. Look at how many private anesthesiology groups have been bought out by—or lost contracts to—large groups and corporations; look at how many hospitals have gone bankrupt or been absorbed into large integrated health systems. Mergers like CVS with Aetna are likely to redefine care delivery networks. Where does a physician anesthesiologist fit into this new world?
An even better question to ask is this: Is your group or practice running pretty much as it did 20 years ago? If so, then my guess is that you are in for a rude awakening sometime soon. One of two scenarios may be in play: either your leadership is running out the clock until retirement and in no mood to change, or your leadership hasn’t yet been able to convince your group that it can no longer practice in the same expensive, antiquated model. As one academic chair said ruefully, at a recent meeting, “They’re like frogs being slowly boiled. They just don’t feel what’s happening.”
The perspective beyond the ramparts
As CSA President, I’ve had the opportunity recently to attend two remarkable meetings: the ASA’s Strategic Dialogue Summit, which took place on January 18-19 in Chicago, and the CSA’s Winter Meeting January 22-26 in Maui. The planners of both meetings took the forward-thinking step of inviting people from outside the walls of the ASA and of traditional academic anesthesiology. They weren’t just telling the attendees—and each other—what they wanted to hear.
The ASA Strategic Dialogue Summit was organized by Immediate Past President Jeff Plagenhoef, MD, FASA, and President James Grant, MD, MBA, FASA. It brought together more than 40 anesthesiologists from private, corporate, and academic practice, both ASA loyalists and outsiders. Some of us who were there practice clinical anesthesia every day; others haven’t touched an anesthesia machine in years.
The meeting gave us an opportunity to speak candidly about the specialty of anesthesiology:
- What threatens the specialty?
- Are current payment models stifling progress, and what can be done?
- How will new technologies make us obsolete or help us work smarter?
- Are we training too many anesthesiologists, or should we train more?
- How should training be revised to meet the needs of the future?
- What disruptive innovations are just over the horizon?
The participants can’t say more than that at present, as we are considering the next steps that the process should take: whether and when to engage different demographic groups of anesthesiologists in the dialogue, and involve outside stakeholders (such as third-party payers, patient advocate groups, healthcare administrators, and other physician specialties).
Beyond the Strategic Dialogue Summit, these questions should be considered by all of us, as we think about our profession and where we are going from here.
How trauma surgery reinvented itself
A prominent surgeon, Gregory Jurkovich, MD, FACS, of the University of California at Davis, gave a fascinating talk at the CSA Winter Meeting on how the specialty of trauma surgery has reinvented itself over the past 20 years in response to a crisis.
Back in 2001, the US faced a critical shortage of surgeons who were willing to take trauma call for emergency departments, Dr. Jurkovich explained. The cases often occurred at night and on weekends, and the pay didn’t begin to match the work involved. Younger surgeons going into practice no longer considered emergency call a duty as previous generations had done. Emergency departments became severely overcrowded, and the harm to patients from delays in care turned into a national scandal.
The leaders in surgery had to face facts. The profession of surgery as it existed in 2001 wasn’t delivering the best possible care to trauma and other emergency surgical patients, Dr. Jurkovich said. Not all general surgeons or orthopedic surgeons, let alone sub-specialists, were willing to assume care of emergency cases, and a surgeon who rarely sees trauma cases probably shouldn’t be managing them anyway.
A new Committee on the Future of Trauma Surgery, with broad representation from surgical boards and subspecialties, convened in 2003. The committee members decided that they didn’t want to let the specialty of trauma surgery die out, and they didn’t want to turn all non-operative care over to non-surgeons or hospitalists.
They decided to create a new specialty, which would serve emergency patients better, offer an attractive career and lifestyle, and stand as a valuable specialty in its own right. The new specialty would provide critical care training as well as operative training in trauma and other acute emergencies.
The new specialty came to be called “Acute Care Surgery”, and it has been a resounding success, Dr. Jurkovich said. It consists of a two-year fellowship after general surgery, combining trauma care, general surgery, and surgical critical care, and there are now 25 fellowship programs. Graduates work for academic and private hospitals alike, typically on a salary plus stipend basis. Their practices may include routine emergency cases (appendectomy, bowel obstruction) along with trauma cases, and acute-care surgeons admit and make rounds on surgical intensive care patients. Their round-the-clock availability helps avoid dangerous operative delays.
The shift-based work appeals to younger surgeons who seek a more predictable schedule, Dr. Jurkovich said. He pointed out generational challenges which affect surgery and every other specialty today, with more women entering medical school than ever before, more interest in a “balanced” lifestyle, and less interest in general practice than in subspecialty “niches”.
What lessons can we learn?
If the specialty of anesthesiology needs to reinvent itself—redesign what we do and how we do it—it isn’t too late if we start now. The exact solutions and details of implementation will vary by location and practice setting. But inaction, and futile attempts to defend the status quo, are the biggest threats.
For the past several years, I’ve had the privilege of traveling and speaking with anesthesiologists from a wide variety of practice settings, during my work as a CSA officer, a delegate to the ASA, and now as CSA President. The problems and the fears are evident; many anesthesiologists feel as though we are being squeezed in an ever-tightening vise of production pressure and cost constraints. The question is how to break free.
Here are my crystal ball’s top three best-case predictions—those of you who are in practice 20 or 30 years from now will have a chance to see how right or wrong they turn out to be!
The training of anesthesiologists will break the mold of today’s iron-fisted control by the ACGME, the RRC, and the match system.
We’ll no longer insist that every program train every resident with exactly the same cookie-cutter requirements. Residency and fellowship programs will develop and excel along different lines. Some will focus on scientific research, some on the economics and operational management of healthcare, and others on the clinical management of patients and teams in procedural settings. Cross-training with other specialties will expand, and anesthesiology’s influence will expand accordingly.
You’ll never hear the question, “But how will we get paid for it?”
If a peri-procedural service needs to be delivered, anesthesiologists will figure out how to do it safely and efficiently, without being hobbled by fee-for-service constraints. New care models will involve sedation nurses, ICU nurses, pharmacists, and other staffers—in addition to anesthesiologist assistants and nurse anesthetists—under the direction of anesthesiologists across the continuum of every episode of care that includes an interventional procedure. The current rigid supervision ratios and definitions will no longer apply.
Technology will redefine delivery of care.
Operating suites will have command centers where multiple rooms can be viewed and monitored simultaneously. Physician anesthesiologists will no longer spend disproportionate amounts of time performing nursing and pharmacy tasks: injecting drugs into IV lines, or mixing antibiotics. Better drug delivery systems, with feedback loops and decision support, will replace minute-to-minute manual fine-tuning. As we work smarter, the desires of upcoming generations for predictable schedules and career satisfaction can be fulfilled.
If we face the future squarely, and make changes now that set our specialty up to survive and thrive, we can bring the joy back to the practice of anesthesiology. Then we’ll have good reason to celebrate Physician Anesthesiologists Week for many years to come.