Category Archives: Airway

Back in the saddle

Well, have been a bit hectic the past few weeks since getting back to Kangaroo Island after my year away doing anaesthetics in NSW. Thankfully it’s relatively easy to slip back into the groove of rural medicine – and in fact it’s been a welcome relief after being back in the tertiary hospital system. But still had to get used to running on time, all the paperwork that seems to swamp us as well as catch up with friends and family back home.


Hence no blog posts since early January.


However today I am on call, sitting on the deck with a 12 month old kangaroo that Trish has taken on board in my absence, watching the rains over the north coast of KI.


Being on call again is actually quite refreshing – the Kangaroo Island doctors as a whole are now doing three weeks out of every four on the EM roster…the remaining (4th) week covered by a Country Health SA locum. I believe similar arrangements have been in place elsewhere in the State, where local doctors are struggling to fill the EM roster. Meanwhile between four of us we are providing full cover for anaesthetics and obstetrics, with two doctors doing each discipline.


I’ve also been getting to grips with delivering anaesthetics on KI – two lists so far which have been uneventful, although I’m still trying to work out how to make the anaesthetic machine display a minimal alveolar concentration of anaesthetic agent, and struggling with an end-tidal CO2 monitor that reads in unknown units (3.5-4.5 seems the average, not the 35-40mmHg I’m used to). One for the hospital to work out…


When not at work, I have been analysing the results from the GP-anaesthetist survey – over 370 responses so far, and a fair proportion are dedicated GP-anaesthetists as well as ‘occasional intubators’ (rural docs who are on an EM roster and may be called upon to intubate seldomly). Results have been interesting, with no surprises that rural docs don’t have access to a lot of the airway kit that would be taken fro granted in the city. More worryingly, a session at the local (mostly volunteer) ambulance station last week showed me that they’ve got some kit on the ambulance that we don’t have in our hospital! Had some helpful insights from airway giants like Paul Baker (NZ) and Minh le Cong (RFDS Qld), as well as lots of comments from the wider GP-anaesthetist cohort who seem to share similar frustrations as we do locally. But more on that later, as I polish my manuscript and hope to get published later this year. Meanwhile, will try and give a few talks during the year to interested parties.


But back to on-call….I’ve realised that it’s been almost two years since I’ve done an EM shift on Kangaroo Island – away for all of 2011 doing anaesthetics and for 2010 the docs on KI were reeling from all the nastiness over contract negotiations with Country Health SA and the ACCC. Now I am on-call for anaesthetics for half the year and doing one emergency shift a week….and wondering where we are at with contract negotiations – the last contract was due to end Nov 2011, rather than the usual three years…as rural docs were generally unhappy with the contract terms but were prepared to accept an interim contract hoping things would improve.


Back on 30/11/11 the head of Country Health, Belinda Moyes, wrote asking for a three month extension to contract negotiations. That extension is due to expire on 28/2/12 and I’ve not heard peep from Country Health over contracts. One has to wonder if they are serious about negotiating a new contract, or will just keep ‘extending’ the current contract rather than negotiate.


A big issue for me (and many other doctors) has been the sheer unfairness of Country Health insisting that people presenting to the emergency department are billed privately by the on call doctor, unless they are admitted to a hospital bed. This seems plainly unfair – whilst patients in metro areas are treated for free in the Emergency Dept of public hospitals, their country cousins are charged. 


Many of these services are for things that are not routine ‘general practice’ ie: X-raying a fracture and setting a limb in plaster, suturing an extensive laceration, pulling a dislocated shoulder back into shape, dealing with an alleged rape or victims of a motor vehicle accident. Country Health has managed to formalise this in the most recent (well, in fact the first) contract from 2010 with a clause stating that:


non admitted emergency services are provided under the Medicare system (ie the patient is charged by the medical practitioner and seeks reimbursement from Medicare). For the avoidance of doubt, CHSA shall not be liable to pay any fee for such services”


Their rationale is that such patients are an extension of the doctors private practice. Indeed, CHSA states that:


“This funding model with MBS being paid for public patients attending state hospitals, is acceptable to the Commonwealth due to an exemption in the National Healthcare Agreement that ‘in those hospitals that rely on GPs for the provision of medical services (normally small rural hospitals), eligible patients may obtain non-admitted patient services as private patients where they request treatment by their own GP, either as part of continuing care or by prior arrangement with the doctor.’ 

As far as I know, South Australia doesn’t have an exemption under the National Healthcare Agreement but continues to obfuscate this issue. What really twists my melon, and that of the patients who I see who are charged for their attendance, is that they have neither requested treatment by their own GP, nor is there treatment part of continuing care or a prior arrangement with the doctor. Basically, it’s not a private service…it’s just Coutnry Health SA cost-shifting dollars from State to Federal expenses.

In fact, the on call doctor is called to attend patients in the ED as part of his/her role as the doctor on-call for emergencies in a contract with CHSA. There is no prior arrangement, they are not private patients and usually this is not part of continuing care.

Quite how the Health Department continues to get away with this blatant cost shift from State to Federal (Medicare) coffers amazes me. And it is cold comfort to our patients – the rural ones are already disadvantaged enough, and the metro or interstate ones are flabbergasted to be charged fees for services in ED that they would receive for free at home. And of course the overseas tourists (and we see a fair share on Kangaroo Island) are less than impressed to receive a bill and aren’t covered by Medicare.

Bottomline, the doctor on call for emergency medicine for CHSA doesn’t get paid to come and see emergency patients, unless they are admitted to hospital for over four hours…



Let’s hope this issue will be resolved in contract negotiations – although with two days to go until contracts expire, I am not optimistic.

Country Driving

I’ve recently driven back from Orange (NSW) to Kangaroo Island (SA) – one of those long, two-day road trips that is characteristic of driving in Australia. I counted less than 200 vehicles between Orange and Tailem Bend – over 1200km of road over two days…and of course whilst driving you tend to think about stuff. Some things struck me…
  • Australia is vast
  • rural areas are sparsely populated
Hence If you have a crash out here, you are likely to face a long time before help arrives. And even then :
  • the major cities are a LONG way away (>500km)
  • there are smaller rural hospitals; some are little more than first-aid posts & some have capabilities for surgery (which implies the presence of a doctor with anesthetic skills)
Add to this :
  • the prehospital response may be initially composed of volunteer paramedics/first responders, with more more advanced practitioners few-and-far between
All together it is no surprise that the outcomes from a motor vehicle crash are worse than in the city, with one Australian study demonstrating a four-fold mortality for rural vs metropolitan areas. Not surprisingly, mortality increases the longer the time to care…and concepts like the “platinum ten minutes” and “golden hour” of trauma become academic when crash victims may not be discovered or receive help for a considerable time.

As rural doctors, it behoves us to examine best practices to try and improve survival. Certainly we need to have to skills and equipment to provide appropriate medical care in our hospitals..and some may provide an extended role at the roadside. I’ve blogged before about the concept of training and equipping rural docs to provide a coordinated prehospital response…and the more doctors I speak to, the more seem to think this is a ‘good idea’. Implementation however may take longer, and there will be hurdles to overcome (not least the oft cited response that such work is best left to experts, not enthusiastic amateurs).

Of course, the best ‘bang for buck’ is not necessarily in the delivery of expert medical care. I remember Karim Brohi making this point at one of the Australian Trauma Society annual conferences a few years back – “it’s better to build a fence at the top of the cliff, rather than provide an ambulance at the bottom to pick up the injured“. 

Locally we’ve had some small success with the ‘Roadkill Recipes‘ project – recognising that many rural traffic injuries on Kangaroo Island were caused by wildlife-vehicle collisions, a satirical cookbook of local wildlife served as a medium to convey a road safety message to locals and tourists.  Places like Kangaroo Island (and Tasmania) are interesting in that roadkill (and hence wildlife-vehicle collisions) is abundant. But for most rural areas the notorious “fatal five” of speed, inattention, drink/drug-driving, driver fatigue and lack of seatbelts are the culprits in many road crashes. 

Which is why I was heartened to see new signage as I crossed the border into South Australia (below). The Motor Accident Commission’s “matemorphosis” country roads programme aims to target country drivers, particularly male drivers who may respond to mateship peers.

The MAC campaign includes references to wankers, cocks, knobs and tossers.

I wonder if as rural doctors we need to be more proactive in injury prevention – especially when our work comprises mostly primary care as well as the ‘fun stuff’ like airways, trauma and emergency medicine. Driving change can be hard, but if we’re serious about injury prevention we need to be active in local road safety groups, at sporting events, with families and spreading the road safety message. But concomitantly we need to ensure our training and local resources are fit for purpose.

So in 2012 my projects will be:

– actively engage the local community in primary prevention health strategies,

– work with colleagues around the country to develop a ‘rural doctor masterclass’ course, showcasing latest concepts, equipment and techniques relevant to rural proceduralists,

– try and establish a more formal framework for rural doctors attending prehospital incidents (as a minimum, appropriate training, equipment and maintenance of standards) – existing retrievalist courses like RFDS STAR (RFDS Qld) and the medSTAR short course seem to be appropriate building blocks, bolstered by some online case discussion and commonality on procedures/protocols,

– work on developing a bespoke airway skills course for rural docs in South Australia, with concomitant development of minimum standards for difficult airway equipment in our rural hospitals.

    What are your News Year resolutions?


    Tracheal Trauma

    When I was a young lad, one of the things that would excite me was stories of pirates and murderous ‘cut-throats’. At the age of ten, the idea of a ‘cut throat’ was somehow synonymous with a quick death. Fast wind forward a decade or so (ahem, well maybe more) and I’m reflecting on some of the more interesting cases of 2011.


    One was a young man involved in a ‘glassing’ in the local pub. He presented to the ED via ambulance, maintaining his own airway but with an obvious zone 1 neck injury. Now, I teach in the animal lab on EMST courses and it amazes me how difficult it can be to identify the appropriate place to perform a tracheostomy. We aim for the cricothyroid membrane, but I’ve seen FACEMs bugger it up completely and transect the trachea (even once the oesophagus and damn near severe the vertebral column!)


    Anyhow, this chap’s assailant had obviously either been on an EMST course or had performed percutaneous tracheostomies in the ICU – because with just a broken beer glass, he’d managed to make a perfect incision in the victim’s trachea, between 2nd and third tracheal rings. OK, not the cricothyroid membrane, but otherwise a damn near perfect tracheostomy!


    So we took him upstairs and performed an awake fibreoptic intubation with a surgeon scrubbed and ready to perform a tracheostomy. And the patient did OK (had an injury to posterior tracheal wall with oesophageal perforation confirmed on oesophagoscopy, but no mediastinitis and injury healed over time in ICU).


    So I’ve been thinking about these sort of injuries and how best to manage them with my (limited) kit back in the bush. Although reasonably rare, both blunt and penetrating laryngotracheal injuries present difficulties for the rural GP-anaesthetist…as the airway needs to be secured ASAP.


    And this is not a hypothetical – such injuries are not uncommon in the bush – the classic is ‘clothes-line’ injury where a quad or trail-bike rider impacts a fencing wire at speed, sustaining tracheal injury. Add to that ‘robust’ sports, the usual gamut of farming and motor vehicle injuries..so the rural docs needs to have some form of game plan on how to manage these. And the ‘exam answer’ for ANZCA may not be applicable for the rural doctor, with limited equipment/backup.


    The danger of course is that attempts at direct laryngoscopy may cause complete tracheal disruption, with subsequent passing of the ETT tube down a false passage, development of subcutaneous emphysema, failed ventilation and a spiral down into demise.


    Every now and then, one hears of paramedics just popping a suitably sized ETT tube through the hole made in a traumatic tracheostomy – a fine strategy for the penetrating injury, but not available for blunt injury or small penetrating wounds.


    How then to approach this? There isn’t a great deal in the literature and my FANZCA colleagues fall back on the ‘awake fibreoptic intubation’ answer…which is fine in the tertiary centre, but impractical in a small rural hospital.


    So, what to do when faced with a patient with tracheal injury and needing emergent intubation (let’s assume they are becoming obtunded or failing to keep SpO2 up). My thoughts?


    – direct laryngoscopy. May seem controversial, but this is what I am best at and the equipment is readily to hand (ETT/bougie). However DL risks disruption of the larynx/trachea and a false passage, making further attempts at intubation impossible.


    – do a formal tracheostomy under local. Sounds fine, especially if can delegate to a surgeon. If I am in luck there may be an ENT surgeon visiting for a fishing trip, otherwise it’s going to be a messy scrabble with a patient who may refuse to lay flat/be combative. Nasty, but potentially do-able with equipment to hand (betadine-gloves-drape-local anaesthetic-scalpel-lots of gauze-retractors-ETT-lots of light-assistant)


    – indirect laryngosocopy using videolaryngoscope. I like this idea, as intuitively seems to involve less mechanical distraction of the larynx…and the KingVision allows easy passage of a bougie, then railroad ETT over the top. Parker-tipped ETT to try and avoid any ‘hang up’ at the arytenoids…


    – use an iLMA to maintain oxygenation – then intubate with ETT through this using either AmbuAscope or a malleable intubating stylet such as Bonfils or Levitan. To my mind the Ascope seems to offer an advantage here as could use iLMA as a conduit then follow down to carina…ensuring no false passage – then railroad ETT over the top. The shaped intubating-stylets allow one to visualise the laryngeal inlet..but not to insert down to carina, so potentially will intubate through the cords, but suffer false passage further down.


    – topicalise the airway and perform an awake fibreoptic intubation. Preferred technique of my FANZCA colleagues, but it’s hard to do enough AFOIs to keep ‘current’. Now is not the best time for a relative novice to be trying!




    What do other’s think?


    – any thoughts on above?


    – gas induction or classic RSI?


    – what kit do you have available to assist you, either now..or planned.




    Bring it on…