For anyone contemplating serious surgery, it can be a scary endeavor. From going through it myself and talking to others, I know that the main fear we have going into it is that the surgeon will make a mistake during the surgery, or that we will develop serious complications such as a hematoma, infection, etc. that leads to death or paralysis. While these are very real risks of many forms of surgery, there is another aspect of surgical procedures that gets less attention from patients – the anesthesiologist. While it may get little notice from patients, anesthesiology is a highly complex field of medicine in which doctors (and certified nurse anesthetists) train for years to be able to do it well. This post will focus on just one aspect of anesthesiology known as intubation, and a new development in robotics that may improve the procedure.
What is intubation?
At its most basic, intubation is the process by which the anesthesiologist places a thin plastic tube into the patient’s windpipe to maintain an airway or to facilitate mechanical ventilation. While this is done in a variety of serious medical situations, it is almost always done during major surgery when the patient is under general anesthesia. During such surgery, the patient is rendered unconscious and is unable to breathe on his or her own. Therefore, the anesthesiologist has to essentially breathe for the patient during the surgery, either using a ventilator or sometimes compressing a bag that replaces natural breathing. The process of intubation allows this artificial breathing to take place. Because intubation itself is a painful procedure (remember – a tube is being inserted far down your throat), the patient is usually given paralytic drugs (drugs to induce paralysis) before intubation. This is a key point we’ll come back to later.
Risks of Intubation
While it may sound as simple as sliding a tube down the throat, intubation carries its own risks separate and apart from the risks of anesthesia itself (risks from anesthesia can include death, paralysis, brain damage and a whole host of other less serious injuries). With intubation, there are minor risks such as chipped teeth, lacerations in the gums and sore throat. However, there are many more serious risks as well, including perforation of the trachea, mistakenly placing the tube down the esophagus (a more common occurrence than you might think), aspiration of stomach contents, vocal cord injury, decreased oxygen and elevated carbon dioxide, and nerve injury. Intubation is a serious procedure that requires a high degree of skill and training to do it well and safely.
What if the tube does not get placed properly?
Inability to secure the airway is a major problem in intubation. To understand why, you have to remember that before the tube is placed, the anesthesiologist paralyzes you with drugs. Therefore, before the tube is placed, you stop breathing on your own. It is then critical that the tube be placed quickly and accurately to ensure that you don’t suffer from a lack of oxygen (or ventilation – the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide). So what happens when the anesthesiologist has trouble getting the tube in? It just so happens that I have some personal familiarity with that scenario.
A few years ago I had back surgery. The surgery itself was not complex as far as spine surgeries go (it always amazes me how surgeons are able to describe cutting open your back and operating on your spine as casually as they might describe changing a light bulb). It essentially consisted of trimming off a small piece of disc that was pressing on my spinal cord and causing pain to radiate down into my leg and foot. I was in and out of the hospital the same day, but of course I was under general anesthesia so I had to spend a couple of hours in the Post Anesthesia Recovery Room (PACU) to make sure that I was not suffering from any ill effects of the anesthesia. While waking up, and still groggy, the anesthesiologist walked up to me and said, “I just want to let you know – you were really hard to intubate. If you ever have surgery again, be sure to tell your doctor that you’re really hard to intubate.”
I asked the doctor what he meant by that. He told me that because of the anatomy of my mouth and throat, he had had a really difficult time getting the tube into my airway. Keep in mind, the tube was placed down my throat after I was given drugs to paralyze me. Even in my post-anesthesia addled state, I knew enough to ask the obvious question – what would have happened if he couldn’t have gotten the tube down in time? He was casual in his response. “Oh, we would have given you drugs to wake you back up.” How comforting. My next thought was, “Maybe you could have checked my anatomy out before you gave me paralyzing drugs.” I didn’t ask that because I am sure they did check me pre-operatively. That is standard procedure before giving anesthesia to make sure that the anesthesiologist knows the patient’s anatomy and can anticipate problems. Apparently, my anatomy was a little more vexing than he had bargained for. However, he was finally able to get the tube in and the surgery went well.
The use of robotics
Because of the ever-present risk of serious complications, researchers are always working on improving intubation to minimize risk. It has always been a hands-on procedure that depended on the skill of the individual performing it. Now we may be moving into a whole new world of intubation thanks to advances in robotics.
Medical News Today is reporting that Dr. Thomas Hemmerling of McGill University and his team have developed a robotic system for intubation that can be operated via remote control. According to Dr. Hemmerling:
The [device] allows us to operate a robotically mounted video-laryngoscope using a joystick from a remote workstation. This robotic system enables the anesthesiologist to insert an endotracheal tube safely into the patient’s trachea with precision.
The system is still in development. It has been widely tested with mannequins that mimic human anatomy, and clinical testing on patients has now begun. Dr. Hemmerling hopes that the new device will allow anesthesiologists to intubate patients using less force and higher precision, which should help to improve patient safety. Even with the use of robotics, I would think that intubation, including pre-operative assessment of individual anatomy, is going to require close hands-on involvement in order to ensure that it is done safely and properly, but it is always exciting to see what was once science fiction being used in real-life surgeries.
What you can do
While robotic anesthesiology is still down the road for most of us, there are still things you can do to minimize your risk of injury. Before agreeing to surgery, most of us do a good job of vetting our surgeon – how experienced he or she is, how many similar procedures he or she has performed. How many times have you heard a friend describe his or her surgeon as “the best?” Yet virtually no one who has been a patient – at least in my experience – makes any inquiry into the experience level of the anesthesiologist, even though a mistake by this person can render you paralyzed or brain-dead (or even dead) in a matter of minutes.
If you are planning on undergoing serious surgery, I would encourage you to discuss the anesthesia care with your surgeon. Find out ahead of time who your anesthesiologist is going to be (if that’s possible), and discuss your situation with that person. No doubt you will be evaluated by the anesthesiology team before your surgery, but it may well be the same day as your surgery, and it will feel like just another routine matter like signing a few forms. Keep in mind, however, that anesthesiology is just as important as the surgery itself. Stay informed and ask questions. Treat your pre-operative session with the anesthesiologist as if your life and health were depending on it – it just may!
And as for robotics, I’m curious what your comfort level would be if your doctor suggested using a robot to intubate you? Would you be willing to try the procedure, or would you prefer the traditional hands-on, human approach?
Image from “Today’s Medical Developments”