A 79 year old previously well female presents with loss of consciousness, having been found unresponsive by her daughter who saw her well one hour previously.
Examination reveals a GCS of E1V2M3 = 6 and reactive pupils with no lateralising signs. She is hypertensive. A VBG reveals a normal glucose and sodium and a pCO2 of 60 mmHg (7.9 kPa).
The emergency physician’s plan is to intubate and get a CT scan of her brain. This is explained to the daughter.
A no-brainer? You’d think so.
A consistent issue that recurs during discussions with UK emergency medicine colleagues is that of having to rely on anaesthesia and/or ICU colleagues for intubation of their patients in the ED. The pain comes not from disagreeing about who does the procedure or what drugs to use, but rather on the decision to intubate.
The refusal to intubate can stall or halt a resuscitation plan, delay care, result in risky transfers to the imaging suite, and even deny potential outcome-improving therapy (for example post-ROSC cooling). It can undermine team leadership and disrupt the team dynamic.
There are often different ways to ‘skin a cat’ and it is frequently helpful to invite the opinion of other critical care specialists. However, it is clear from multiple discussions with frustrated EM colleagues that the decision not to intubate is often influenced by non-clinical factors, most often ICU bed availability. Other times, it appears to be that the ‘gatekeeper’ to airway care (and to ICU beds) does not share the same appreciation of the clinical issues at stake. Examples here include the self-fulfilling pessimism post-ROSC based on inappropriate assignment of predictive value to neurological signs, and the assumption of non-treatable pathology in elderly patients presenting with coma.
The obvious solution to this is that the responsibility for managing the ‘A’ of ABC should not be delegated to non-emergency medicine personnel. Sadly, this is not achievable 24/7 in all UK departments right now for a number of awkward reasons.
So what’s a team leader to do when faced with a colleague’s refusal to intubate? The best approach would be to gently and politely persuade them to change their mind by stating some clinical facts that enable a shared mental model and agreed management plan, and to ensure the most senior available physicians are participating in the discussion.
Sometimes that fails. What next? Here’s a suggestion. This is slightly tongue-in-cheek but take away from it what you will.
It is imperative that the individual declining intubation appreciates the gravity of his or her decision. They must not be under the impression that they’ve done you (and the patient) a favour by giving their opinion after an ‘airway consult’. They have declined a resuscitative intervention requested by the emergency medicine team leader and should appreciate the consequences of this decision and the need to document it as such.
Perhaps say something along the lines of:
And here’s the form. It is provocative, cheeky, and in no way should really be used in its current form: