Over at Street Watch: Notes of a Paramedic, there is an excellent post about airway management. Beach Ball Bellies. The discussion is about the common problem of stomach inflation. Stomach inflation is almost always followed by vomiting. One solution proposed is to allow BLS (Basic Life Support) to use the LMA (Laryngeal Mask Airway) to ventilate cardiac arrest patients.
First I want to comment on one other skill change Peter mentions. CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure). I do not see any problem with adding this to the BLS scope of practice. If the dividing line between BLS and ALS (Advanced Life Support) is seen as BLS cannot perform invasive procedures, then CPAP is certainly not invasive. CPAP is only to be used for patients who can control their own airways. The airway is in the control of the patient, not in the control of the basic EMT, not in the control of the medic, not in the control of respiratory, not in the control of the nurse, not in the control of the doctor. So, where is the objection to CPAP use by BLS?
Back to the main problem.
In medicine, there is a lack of airway management skill.
Not just first responders. Not just basic EMTs. Not just intermediate level EMTs. Not just paramedics. Not just nurses. Not just doctors. Everybody.
There are some people with excellent airway management skills, but there are plenty with such pathetic skills that they should wear this patch.
Why do we tolerate incompetence?
We are no different from the rest of the world in overdosing on Cognitive DissonanceTM.
In paramedic schools, do we require that paramedics demonstrate excellence in BVM (Bag Valve Mask) use? Some places do, but many do not. It is usually just a quick demonstration of inflating the lungs on Fred the Head (an intubation mannequin - the head in the picture on the right in the link is Fred, or a relative). The person evaluating the future medics probably isn't even interested, because it is not an effective evaluation and it is not considered important.
It used to be that paramedic candidates had to use a BVM to ventilate a patient through an entire surgical procedure, but that kind of attention to BVM skill does not seem to be important any more. After all, if the NR (National Registry of EMTs) can certify medics for you, why worry about skill? If NR says they have what it takes, they must have what it takes. Too bad what it takes is only the ability to memorize and regurgitate material with no understanding of relevance to patient care. Patients are still regurgitating, because of NR certified airway mismanagement.
There is a demand for people with patches that end with a P, as in EMT-P, P for Paramedic. In order to provide those patch wearers, we need to lower the standards? Maybe. Maybe not.
Fire departments, private ambulance companies, volunteer organizations, hospitals, . . . all demand more employees. The public demands paramedics. The school administrators demand high pass rates. The standards get lowered to satisfy these customers.
We have a problem with the instructors, too. Do they have the ability to perform the skills? Do they understand when the skills are indicated? Do they understand how to teach? Are they being pressured to just run them through the program, because the NR will weed out the bad ones? The last reason was the main one for me, when I stopped teaching paramedic school.
Too many clueless medics being passed, because the final exam is a test that we think will weed out the ones who never learned. But we have been spending more time on test preparation. Test preparation is just how to make it seem that you know what you are doing, even though you do not. We spend a lot of time on test preparation, because the students are not being educated. The less prepared the students are, the more time we spend on gaming the system.
Maybe we should hand out ruby slippers and teach the medics to say, There's no place like trachea. There's no place like trachea. There's no place like trachea.
At the end of paramedic school, there is the NR exam. This is the equivalent of Professor Marvel handing out diplomas. Suddenly, the possession of the paramedic card is expected to produce the competence that the paramedic school could not in all of the hours of training they provided? Sounds reasonable.
There is an excellent article by Kelly Grayson at EMS1.com. This should be read by everyone involved in airway management. In hospital (respiratory, nurses, doctors), out of hospital (first responders, basic EMTs, medics, flight crews), everywhere (if you have anything to do with airway management, you should read this article).
If we do not begin insisting on BVM excellence at the first responder level, we need to teach it over again at the basic EMT level. It is hard to get people to stop using bad habits. If we do not begin insisting on BVM excellence at the basic EMT level, we need to teach it over again at the paramedic level. It is even harder, by then, to get people to stop using bad habits.
I do not have a problem with putting LMAs, King LTs, CombiTubes, . . . in the hands of first responders and basic EMTs. I do have a problem with substituting one form of misunderstanding for another. If they are not competent with the BVM, will they be competent with any alternative airway?
We thought the solution to the problem was insistence on OPA (OroPharyngeal Airway)and NPA (NasoPharyngeal Airway) use. We demand that these devices be used in airway management. But why do we really need them? Sometimes the tongue will continue to obstruct the airway, even with good head positioning. OK, then use these, when they are indicated. They are not indicated for every use of the BVM.
Put an OPA in your mouth. Some of you may not have a gag reflex, but for those of you, who do have intact gag reflexes, didn't it make you want to vomit? For the patients with bad airway management, the OPA really just helps the stomach fill up with air even faster, while stimulating any gag reflex that is present. If I were to write a recipe for vomiting, a recipe that does not include ipecac, this would be it. Fill the stomach, while stimulating the gag reflex. That should not be our goal. Good airway management means using what is appropriate to manage the airway. It does not mean using everything, just because it is in the bag.
Some instructors will tell you that you need to use an OPA (NPA when you cannot open the mouth) whenever you are using a BVM. Airway management is about continual reassessment of the airway. If you cannot tell where the air is going, it does not matter what device you are using. OPA, NPA, LMA, endotracheal tube, . . . it does not matter what the device is. The skill of continual reassessment of the airway is the only essential in airway management.
Airway management is about being able to outsmart the airway. Why are we constantly losing this battle of wits?
It appears that the solution to the problem of Beach Ball Bellies will really come from the elimination of ventilation from the initial management of cardiac arrest. This is something that is overdue, but it is not the solution to airway management problems. This just hides the problem a bit. This just decreases the incidence of the problem.
Removing ventilation from the initial management of cardiac arrest is good for the patient. The AHA (American Heart Association) and ARC (American Red Cross) should be as aggressive in promoting this important change to CPR as they were in promoting fibrinolytics for stroke.
We do not need to lower any standards. We need to raise standards. We have too many paramedics. When there are more paramedics than patients, we usually have too many paramedics. Only in very busy systems do we need to have two medics on a call. Two medics in busy systems, only so they can alternate being in charge of patient care. To minimize burn out. We need to oppose these attempts to make everyone a paramedic, because this leads to a dilution of skills and a lowering of standards. The standards are already too low in too many places. Or are your medics intubating over 95% of patients successfully and managing the airway adequately by alternative means in the rest of cases?
^ TM Cognitive Dissonance
How to harm people with a clear conscience. Fool yourself.
^ 1 The Airway Management Continuum
^ 2 EMS mythology. EMS myth #2. Thombolytic therapy is the standard of care for acute ischemic stroke.
Emerg Med Serv. 2003 Apr;32(4):63-5. No abstract available.
PMID: 12705219 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]