Difficult airways can't be reliably predicted

This paper1 proves what Rich Levitan has been saying (and writing) for years – that there is no method of prediction of difficult intubation that is both highly sensitive (the test wouldn’t miss many difficult airways) and highly specific (meaning those predicted to be difficult would indeed turn out to be difficult). Most importantly, this means one should always have a plan for failure to intubate and failure to mask-ventilate regardless of how ‘easy’ the airway may appear.
This study of a large prospectively collected database captured anaesthetists’ clinical assessment of likelihood of difficult intubation and difficult mask-ventilation, and compared them with actual findings. These studies are always difficult, due in part to the lack of standard definitions of difficult airways, but the take home was clear – the large majority of difficulties were unanticipated and not suspected from pre-operative clinical assessment.
This issue was brilliantly summed up by Yentis in a 2002 Editorial2:
I dare to suggest that attempting to predict difficult intubation is unlikely to be useful – does that mean one shouldn’t do it at all? To this I say no, for there is another important benefit of this ritual: it forces the anaesthetist at least to think about the airway, and for this reason we should encourage our trainees (and ourselves) to continue doing it.”
1. Diagnostic accuracy of anaesthesiologists’ prediction of difficult airway management in daily clinical practice: a cohort study of 188 064 patients registered in the Danish Anaesthesia Database
Anaesthesia. 2014 Dec 16. doi: 10.1111/anae.12955. [Epub ahead of print]
[EXPAND Abstract]

Both the American Society of Anesthesiologists and the UK NAP4 project recommend that an unspecified pre-operative airway assessment be made. However, the choice of assessment is ultimately at the discretion of the individual anaesthesiologist. We retrieved a cohort of 188 064 cases from the Danish Anaesthesia Database, and investigated the diagnostic accuracy of the anaesthesiologists’ predictions of difficult tracheal intubation and difficult mask ventilation. Of 3391 difficult intubations, 3154 (93%) were unanticipated. When difficult intubation was anticipated, 229 of 929 (25%) had an actual difficult intubation. Likewise, difficult mask ventilation was unanticipated in 808 of 857 (94%) cases, and when anticipated (218 cases), difficult mask ventilation actually occurred in 49 (22%) cases. We present a previously unpublished estimate of the accuracy of anaesthesiologists’ prediction of airway management difficulties in daily routine practice. Prediction of airway difficulties remains a challenging task, and our results underline the importance of being constantly prepared for unexpected difficulties.

2. Predicting difficult intubation–worthwhile exercise or pointless ritual?
Anaesthesia. 2002 Feb;57(2):105-9

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