Difficult Airway Equipment and Rural GP Anaesthetists in Australia

Well, it’s been almost just over 9 months since I put out a survey to rural GP-Anaesthetists (GPAs) in Australia….was surely tempted to put the results up on this blog back in April/May once the data had been crunched, but I stood on academic convention and deferred discussion until the paper came out – which was this week….click here to download a printable PDF version.

Another argument for the power of #FOAMed over traditional textbook-journal-conference methods of disseminating information, perhaps?



So, what was this all about? Well, it was only last year that I spent 12 months upskilling in anaesthetics before returning home to Kangaroo Island, SA. Whilst the training I received was invaluable, and to the standard required of the ‘Joint Consultative Committee in Anaesthesia” (JCCA), I think there is a gap between the reality of rural practice and that in the city. Don’t get me wrong. Rural GPAs do a great job. They provide elective anaesthesia to appropriately screened and case-selected patients…as well as manage emergency airways in challenging circumstances.

But I found two things that troubled me in my year of upskilling and attendance at rural anaesthetic conferences in NSW and SA

(i) many specialist anaesthetists did not ‘get’ the realities of rural anaesthesia. Some were dead against the notion of GPAs full stop (yeah right fellas – I’ll stop giving anaesthetics once you guys commit to providing specialist services in the bush).

Others accepted the idea of appropriately-trained GPAs delivering services – but expected us to have access to all the gizmos and resources of a tertiary centre, not understanding the limitations of rural practice and that the work of a rural GPA encompasses not just elective anaesthesia, but also emergency airway management in the absence of immediate backup.

(ii) There is a plethora of new airway devices and algorithms to manage difficult airways – but this equipment may not be available in cash-strapped rural hospitals. This is despite guidelines from ANZCA on difficult airway equipment availability.

So I decided in Jan 2012 to conduct a survey of rural GPAs in my home State of South Australia. Once I’d worked out my questionnaire, it seemed not too difficult to extend the questionnaire to rural GPAs in other States. Sadly no one seems to have a clear idea of how many GPAs there are ‘out there’ – there is no central database, and conflicting data from RACGP and ACRRM on humber of GPs registered under the procedural grant program for anaesthesia (Medicare of course declined to release data). A National Minimum Dataset from 2010 suggested 448 rural GPAs in Oz and so I targetted these through invitations to complete survey via ACRRM/RACGP/RDAA and State-based rural doctor workforce agencies.

Apparently a 65% response rate is good for an internet-based survey; respondents were broadly representative in terms of RA 2-5 distribution, demographics and experience in anaesthesia. Open and closed-question responses were interesting – only 58% of rural GPAs had access to dedicated difficult airway equipment. Many were frustrated with their access to such equipment. Importantly, many did not have access to the appropriate equipment to manage each of the stages of recognised Difficult Airway Algorithms.

This is surprising – there are published Standards for difficult airway equipment in locations where elective anaesthesia is performed, as well as guidelines on difficult airway algorithms. Yet many respondents indicated non-compliance. Moreover, there are AFFORDABLE and ROBUST solutions out there – I’ll post some suggestions on an affordable rural GP-Anaesthetist toolkit in a few weeks or so. Suffice it to say, affordable & robust equipment is out there for less than $5K and there is really no excuse no to have this kit in your OT or ED.

My survey also looked at the involvement of rural doctors in prehospital emergencies – I reckon this is bread n butter for rural docs, but it was interesting that although over 50% of rural GPAs reported their involvement in such work, the majority had had no training in this arena, did not have concordance of protocols with RFDS/retrieval services and furthermore such responses were often ad hoc, not a formal arrangement. Overseas modes such as the UK’s BASICS suggest better models that perhaps Australia (with it’s tyranny of distance) could and should emulate….

By all means have a look at the paper – it’s in Rural & Remote Health online or come and hear me talk at the Rural Medicine Australia conference in Fremantle later this month (#RMA2012). More importantly, examine your own difficult airway equipment and have a look at some of the suggestions on sites like Broomedocs.com and Prehospitalmedicine.com, from whom I am grateful to have drawn inspiration.

For an overview see the VIMEO video here or have a look at the paper here.

As always, comments or criticisms are invited.

4 thoughts on “Difficult Airway Equipment and Rural GP Anaesthetists in Australia”

  1. Hi Tim!

    I have “behind the scenes” knowledge that the price of much of the video driven airway equipment is going to plummet in the next 2 years, including the stylets used for fiberoptic intubation through the SGA’s. How cheap would they need to be to allow widespread acceptance with your community of rural GP-Anaesthetists?

  2. Hi Dr D – price ain’t so much of an issue (I;m not paying) but understanding the need and perhaps purchase in bulk is the way to go for State-based health authorities in rural Australia

    As you know, the newer VLs are in the A$1000 range and the malleable stylets around A$2000 only

    So all up once can set up a decent difficult airway kit for under $4K

    1. Interesting. Another issue here (which may gain more traction in this discussion with administrators) is the potentially career-ending grief, guilt and overall badness that can envelope a caregiver when an airway death or severe injury occurs. Patients do die–that’s a fact–but death by asphyxiation (of a patient) has to be the worst scenario that a caregiver can experience, especially when that caregiver is helpless to effect any type of useful aid to that patient. Those deaths should be prevented. In the current day and age, no one would deny your facilities a defibrillator–it is going to come down to placing this equipment at the level of importance of a defibrillator device. Just a thought. Thanks!

      1. Absolutely. Especially when there are low cost, reliable and robust devices out there to allow one ot manage the unexpected difficult airway.

        One would have thought even more important in locations where there is no immediate backup

        Administrators sometimes look at this through the lens of “it’s expensive and we might only use it once every few years, so we’ll save a few bucks and not buy it”.

        Medicos (and lawyers) look at this form a risk management perspective. I know which I prefer….

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *