As rumours go, this one has been floating through the ether for some time. When it was officially published the other day, I wasn't at all surprised, but I was, still am, more than a little disappointed.
Intubations are no longer going to be a part of the London paramedic's bag of tricks. The single most useful technique we use, the one used in the most critical of patients, is being taken away from us. Let's start at the very beginning.
Intubation (or colloquially "tubing") is a process by which a plastic tube is placed in a patient's airway to protect it. It's used when we need to breathe for the patient, and when we want to stop all manner of gunk, particularly blood or vomit getting into the lungs, effectively drowning the patient. It's used by paramedics mainly in cases of resuscitation attempts - or CPR. If ever there was a time that a patient is likely to vomit, it's when a paramedic is applying brutal repeated pressure to their chest at 100 times a minute.
It is used at other times such as massive trauma when the patient is unconscious enough to allow the intubation to take place. Yes, there are different levels of unconscious, and there are even different degrees of dead, but these are the subject of a completely different discussion.
Now, however, instead of training new paramedics in the skill of intubation, they are only training them up to use LMAs, or laryngeal mask airways. These are good when you need to breathe for a patient, but totally useless if the patient vomits. So in our case, frequently pointless.
These LMAs, whilst brilliant in the hospital setting, will fail to fulfil their purpose out on the road. The reason is simple. In hospital, when a patient is aware of the fact that they're about to be knocked out for an operation, they are starved beforehand. No food in the stomach equals no chance of vomit. The LMA is perfect. You can breathe for the patient without having to go the full invasive method and intubate them. If, however, someone ends up with an emergency operation, where there was no time to starve them first, guess which method of airway protection is used? Correct - the tube.
The trouble with emergency cases is that they are exactly that. Emergencies. The patient will never have starved themselves prior to collapsing or being run over. They will never be considerate enough to think that they'll hold off on having dinner because there might be the possibility of the cavalry in green charging through their front door on a rescue mission, and would really rather prefer that the patient didn't vomit, thereby endangering their own well being, as well as the ambulance crew's uniform.
The arguments for the de-skilling of paramedics are several-fold.
We don't get enough training.
We don't do enough refreshers.
We don't use the skill enough.
We're not good enough at doing it.
The first two I agree with - up to a point. A study, apparently carried out in the USofA, says that the minimum training requirement is a 90% success rate at 57 intubations. The numbers seem a little random to me - but I'm not arguing them. When I did my training, I had to successfully intubate 100% of 25 patients. At least. I think, if I remember correctly, I intubated 40. The only one I failed at was the first one I ever tried. I told the consultant that I couldn't do it. I couldn't see what I needed to see in order to ensure a successful intubation. He huffed and puffed, muttered something, good-naturedly, about these new paramedics, took one look at the patient's throat and found that it WAS an impossible intubation. Even for a seasoned professional. I'm not saying I'm brilliant. But I am saying that I'm honest enough to admit I can't do something. And that in itself is an important skill.
The problem with getting an intubation wrong, is down to what your mother used to tell you when you were a kid. "Don't talk with your mouth full, or the food'll go down the wrong hole." The trachea (air-pipe), and the oesophagus (food-pipe) are next to each other. Well, actually, one in front of the other. If you put the tube down the wrong "pipe", you pump air into the stomach and do nothing for the lungs. It's lethal. It's not a difficult skill to master, but it does need proper training. Not only in how to do it right, but how to recognise and rectify it if you do it wrong.
Training is apparently becoming a problem due to the increased use of LMAs in hospital. The number of intubations is steadily declining, so there are fewer patients going around for paramedics to train on.
So extend the training. Do blocks of hospital theatre training weeks. If it takes a year to get the prerequisite number of intubations, then so be it. Use all the skills you have, and wait with the intubations. If you're lucky and reach that number in two weeks - then off you go into the field and save lives - along with the tubes.
We definitely don't have enough refreshers. Certainly not on intubations. We have courses reminding us how to do CPR, how many compressions, what drugs, what's changed since the last refresher. But we never go back to theatres to intubate live people. A manequin is one thing. A patient is real and has a different feel and knack to tubing. I'd love the chance to go back, once a year, and intubate under the guidance of a consultant anaesthetist. By the same logic, I shouldn't be allowed to put a patient's arm in a sling either. I know one is not a life-changingly-critical as the other, but the logic is the same.
On average, a paramedic will intubate a 3-4 times a year. A few more if you tend to be a little like me and attract more trouble than the average paramedic. It's not a lot. There are pieces of kit on the ambulance I haven't used more than once in my career. Literally. That doesn't mean that I won't use them if I have to. I have the skill, I know how to use it, and use it I will. I feel it's also important for a paramedic to arrange their own refreshers on less-frequently used equipment. To take out pieces of kit they haven't used for ages and just re-educate themselves in it's purpose and function. Clearly this isn't possible with intubations. However, intubating only a handful of times a year does not mean that I lose the skill. It doesn't mean I don't know what I'm doing, and it certainly doesn't mean I forget how to recognise whether I've done it right or wrong.
We're lucky in London. We're one of the very few services in the country (as far as I have managed to discover) that uses a piece of kit called End Tidal CO2 monitor. I'm not going to go into the ins and outs of how it works, but very simply, when you attach this to the end of a tube, it is an almost guaranteed assurance of the success of the intubation. You get a reading - it's in, you don't get a reading, you've missed. Simple as that. If you get a very high reading, chances are that the patient's started breathing on their own. Good news all round. There are fail-safe methods of ensuring a tube is done right. Any paramedic worth their salt will know them, check them, double check them, and know that if they've done it wrong, that they start again. Or, in the rare cases of seemingly impossible or even very difficult intubations, recognises their own limitations and works with what they can.
I've only once out on the road seen a paramedic miss an intubation.
That one time, it was recognised very quickly and fixed. I don't know where the data comes from that we're not good enough at it. My personal experience, the only one I have to go on, tells me otherwise. There have been tubes that I couldn't get, only two if I remember correctly. I blame my legs for one of them. There was a smaller paramedic on scene who could fit more easily into the restricted area round the patient's head and intubated them with no problem. The other I just couldn't see what I needed to see to ensure the tube was going down in the right place. I stuck with an LMA and prayed the patient didn't vomit. I vaguely remember being lucky. That time.
The cynics amongst us will blame the doctors. They're trying, at least some of them, to regain their superiority and would love to see paramedics bounced back to the stone age where we literally pick a patient up, throw them on the back of a truck and race them into hospital quick enough for super-docs to save their lives.
Those same cynics will also say that it's nothing more than a money-saving exercise. Less training means less spending, both on the training itself and the kit that it entails once qualified.
The establishment will claim that as they cannot guarantee training and proficiency, that they are taking the skill away. Future paramedics therefore won't be trained. Current paramedics will be allowed to go on using it for now, but my suspicion is that the equipment will slowly be used up and never replaced. A de-facto de-skilling.
It's a backwards step for an organisation that aims and claims to be a world-leader.
To me, instead of striving to better at we do, and extend our range of skills, this is a move in the wrong direction, a move to limit our abilities further.
I think it's a mistake. A step towards those who see paramedics as nothing more than World-War-I stretcher bearers, and away from those with a vision of modern, skilled, experts in pre-hospital care.
I hope it will be rethought at some time in the near future.
I hope that lessons will be learnt, and I hope that as a Service, London will rethink it's training strategy.
Most of all, I just hope that this is one take-away that we don't all, patient and paramedic alike, learn to later regret.