Are anesthesiologists the last true generalists?

There’s been a great divide between the medical and surgical specialties ever since I can remember.   Surgeons believe internists perseverate too much when decisions need to be made.  Internists consider themselves the true intellectuals of medicine.  I suppose anesthesiologists like me fall somewhere in the middle–we work in surgery, but have to take care of all the medical problems the patient brings to the OR table.  Does that make us the last true generalists?

Recently I brought my patient from the OR back to the medical ICU and gave report to the nurse; made sure that the vent settings were appropriate and that the arterial line waveform was crisp.  When the patient was stable and settled in, I headed over to the ICU desk to finish the paperwork.  The case had been a video-assisted lung decortication and evacuation of empyema, a two-hour procedure on one-lung ventilation, with considerable blood loss, in an elderly patient with a host of underlying medical problems.  Sitting next to me at the ICU desk was a young medicine resident.  He turned to me and asked, “What was the indication for putting in an art line?”

For a second, I thought he was kidding, so I didn’t immediately reply.  “No, really,” he said.  “Was there an event or what?”

Once a mother, always a mother.   I was amused to hear myself answering him with the soothing tone and simple words one uses with a fractious child.  “Well,”  I said, “the event was thoracic surgery.  They’re working near things like the heart.  Only one lung can be ventilated during the operation, with a special double-lumen tube, so we may want to check blood gases.  And it’s nice to know what the blood pressure is all the time.”

Then I went back to the OR, where no one asks why you need to place an arterial line in a critically ill patient who’s having major surgery.  During the walk across the bridge from the ICU tower, I had time to ponder why the disconnect between medicine and surgery seems to be getting worse.

Anesthesiologists love to pick on medical ICU teams for their apparent terror of overhydrating patients–we particularly enjoy getting a septic patient with ischemic bowel who is on a norepinephrine infusion with a 22 gauge IV for access.  But our surgical colleagues have their own lacunar infarcts when it comes to medical management.  It’s sort of fun to watch an orthopedist’s eyes glaze over when we try to explain why it matters that his patient has near-systemic pulmonary artery pressures.  Or to see the deer-in-the-headlights look of the bariatric surgeon who’s told that his patient has drug-eluting coronary stents, and must receive aspirin before and after her gastric bypass.

But personal amusement aside, it can’t be good for there to be so much isolation between medicine and surgery that one hand clearly has no idea what the other is doing.  Sometimes I feel like an ambassador shuttling between two countries where the people speak different languages and worship different gods.

Way back when, there was such a thing as a rotating or flexible internship, which gave interns at least some view of both sides of the medicine/surgery fence.  There was value for the future internists in scrubbing on a ruptured AAA; they may not have enjoyed it much, but at least by the end they understood what the case involved and why it required invasive monitors.

Today, however, medical students graduate and move straight into either a medical or surgical track.  The surgical residents tend to learn a little medicine along the way as they take part in managing their patients’ coexisting medical problems, or at least deciding which consult to request.  The internal medicine residents, on the other hand, rarely have the chance to see what actually happens to their patients during surgery.  They’ll call for a VATS lung biopsy in a patient who is teetering on the brink of death, not seeming to realize that if they can’t ventilate the patient on two lungs, I won’t be able to ventilate with just one.

If medicine residents had the chance to come to the OR with their patients once in a while, it might improve the quality of the internal medicine “clearance”.  We all have our favorite examples.  “Avoid hypoxia and hypotension,” they advise.  Thank goodness; I would never have thought of that.  Or they’ll advocate spinal anesthesia for a patient who’s coagulopathic due to advanced liver disease, which would be an efficient way to produce an epidural hematoma and permanent nerve damage.   Really, if you’ll just tell me what’s wrong with the patient, I can figure out what kind of anesthesia will work best.

There were a lot of advantages to the concept of the flexible internship, though I don’t think we are likely to see it reappear.  In the meantime, it looks as though my job as an anesthesiologist will be to work at the intersection between the medical and surgical spheres.  It’s a challenge to keep up with developments in internal medicine and the constant appearance of new drugs, so that I can manage my patients’ underlying diseases before, during, and after surgery.  Other anesthesiologists focus on pediatrics, obstetrics, or ICU care.  At the same time, we all have the pleasure of seeing the latest in surgical techniques and gadgetry just by showing up for work.

Since Dr. House, expert in everything, is just a fictional character who’s in his last season anyway, maybe the anesthesiologist will end up being the closest thing to the general practitioner of the 21st century.  Who knew?

-Karen S. Sibert is an Associate Professor of Anesthesiology, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.  She blogs at A Penned Point.

 

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