Convergent Evolution in the Jungles of Critical Care

boss-of-the-mob-1400090-1279x1923By Stuart Duffin
Expat Brit, intensive care physician and anaesthetist at Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden. Stuart trained in the UK, and spent some time working Australian emergency departments.

One of the most striking things for me about our new/old pan-specialty of critical care, brought into focus by the world-shrinking effects of FOAM and twitter, is just how differently it falls into the domains of the established specialities in different parts of the world. This leads inevitably to comments like, “emergency physicians shouldn’t intubate”, “anaesthetists cant do sick”, “nurses cant be doing such and such”, and so on. All of these statements are clearly equally rubbish because obviously, in certain parts of the world, they do. And they do it really well. Sure there are differences between countries and continents, populations and environments, but when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter where you are, people still get sick, infected, pregnant, run over, stabbed or hit around the head with heavy things.

All over the world, in our previously quite isolated environments, these same ‘selection pressures’ have forced healthcare providers to evolve by the process of convergent evolution. Although obviously not strictly darwinian, the undeniable effects of simultaneous evolution by survival of the fittest-to-practice can be seen.

Convergent evolution is the process by which, in different parts of the world, completely different species have evolved in parallel to fill similar roles and have similar features. It didn’t matter whether it was a deer, a wildebeest or a kangaroo, there was a vacancy for a fairly big animal who liked eating grass and moved in big groups, and someone stepped up.

Unsurprisingly, critical care resuscitationists are also a little different from country to country and from continent to continent. They have different titles and work in slightly different ways. But when you really look at a critical care doc in action, or talk to one, or follow one on Twitter, we are all cut from the same cloth. I would argue that FOAM has created a critical care zoo in which the kangaroos and antelopes, lemurs and monkeys, aardvarks and echidnas and anaesthetists and emergency physicians are all chucked into the same cage. They’re all looking at each other thinking, “you look like me, but somehow not. We seem to do the same stuff, but we’re not identical – it cant be right!”.

In The United States, the idea of an anaesthetist doing a clamshell thoracotomy would be a little strange. In Scandinavia, an emergency physician doing central lines and fiberoptic intubation in resus would be just as eyebrow raising. A Swedish intensivist and anaesthetist spent some time working in Australia as an ICU senior reg. When attending a patient in resus the emergency physician there announced “we need an airway guy”. My colleague answered “I’m the airway guy”. “No an anaesthetist” replied the emergency physican. “I am an anaesthetist!” “No an….” and so it went on.

The effects of this process are of course by no means limited to doctors. Nurses, paramedics and physiotherapists are all part of this still changing ecosystem. A colleague of mine was showing a visiting Australian emergency physician our trauma bay and describing how major trauma is managed here without the involvement of emergency physicians at all. “When it’s really urgent, it’s anaesthesia and surgery” he explained. I wonder how that went down? There is an element of truth to the statement but the words are wrong. It should have been “When it’s really urgent, it’s airway, access, transfusion, invasive procedures and resuscitation thinking”.

The job title of the person who actually holds the knife/laryngoscope/needle and has what it takes to get it done isn’t important. When the push comes to shove and the bad stuff bounces off the fan, it’s more about skillset and mindset, and less about the collection of letters under your name on your badge, or after your name on your CV.

One thought on “Convergent Evolution in the Jungles of Critical Care”

  1. Great article. Skillset, mindset and team work. Brilliant combination. Awesome resuscitation team 🙂

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