Posts tagged Mental models.

Only one compromise

In anaesthesia, sitting at the point where the ideal meets reality, is compromise.

Compromise is the practical, real-world necessity that allows a health system to function in the face of competing demands. Every point of care in a hospital is a balance of compromises, frequently between safety and the many other flavours of medical quality.

For anaesthesiology the most common compromise is balancing safety with the quality of the patient experience: pain, distress, cost, delays, efficiency, levels of intervention, seniority of care… (Though let’s acknowledge, suffering injury because of a safety compromise is also a pretty poor patient experience.)

In a dynamic world of external stressors (<cough>pandemic<cough>) compromise becomes both more important and more fraught. How do we balance conflict between the needs and priorities of care? Compromises are then a pragmatic necessity, recognising the fractal complexity of patients and hospitals that the inherently reductive nature of best practice and theory struggles to accomodate.

A great example of this is found within the Zero Harm safety movement, aspiring to the worthy (though naive) goal of reducing healthcare staff & patient injury to zero. Zero Harm’s mistake is to build an entire ideology upon an unachievable goal, for as Thomas points out in 'The harms of promoting Zero Harm':

“...some harms are inevitable and impossible to eliminate.”
– Thomas (2020)

Zero Harm is itself a compromise, deprioritising other components of care in service to absolute safety. Only by recognising the natural compromises at every level of the health system can we make informed decisions about the risk-price we are willing to pay for compromise.

Many years ago as a junior resident, a senior colleague dropped some wisdom about compromise that sticks with me today. He made the observation in the setting of one of the commonest and discrete medical interventions: intravenous cannulation. Sometimes you have a cannula that is smaller or not flowing as well as you would prefer. Depending on the circumstance, this is often tolerable and we grudgingly accept it.

"But beware”, he said, “never allow more than one compromise.”

Although imperfect intravenous access may be a small compromise, it represents an increased-risk point of failure. Perhaps you now feel compelled to accept a ‘minor’ airway compromise (LMA over an ETT?), or a fasting compromise, or location, or the presence (or not) of a parent at induction? While each step may be justifiable, stacking compromises increases points of failure and risk in a non-linear way.

Stacked compromises increase risk geometrically.

Stacked compromises are fragile.

While there may be no true hard rules in anaesthesia, we need to appreciate that risk exists on a dynamic spectrum. The adolescent ideology of Zero Harm may have near Zero Place in anaesthesia, yet the primacy of risk management and harm minimisation always requires considering how our compromises interact and compound to alter the risk profile of the care we provide. Our goal in managing risk in complex systems should be to reduce risk where we can, and build resilience where we cannot.

You may still feel it necessary to stack your compromises, but by the Gods of Anaesthesia, if you do then you better make sure you know the price being paid – and who is ultimately paying it.

Biased thinking in a time of COVID

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic for all it's horror and challenge, has highlighted certain uncomfortable truths about the human condition. One of these has been the impact of our cognitive short-comings: our difficulty understanding the non-linear and non-binary, and our susceptibility to cognitive biases.

Many of these problems led to missteps at the beginning of the pandemic response, and now early in the fight continue to impede our decisions. By better understanding these cognitive traps we can at least be more alert to our blind spots and alter our actions in response.

As early data seeped out of China in January, quickly followed by cases appearing in global travel hubs, many national governments along with their populations refused to acknowledge the pandemic threat. Even as Northern Italy's health system first bent then broke, surpassing China's own COVID death count a mere 47 days after Italy's first confirmed case, world governments continued to water-down the threat.

Read on about exponential growth and biased thinking...

Are there any truly universal anaesthesia rules?

It’s not uncommon to hear anaesthesiologists drop verbal markers of universal truths into their clinical utterances: always, every, never. Often it's the most banal practices ("always attach the cannula tegaderm so") that generate our greatest passions.

However there are few, if any, universalisms in anaesthesia. Almost every rule has caveats and exceptions, reflecting the shades-of-grey reality of patient needs and human physiology.

When clinicians decree something is always or never so, they are often confusing truth with convention. Sometimes confusing an absolute with what is instead dogma. A minority reveal the rigidity of their thinking, impeding rather than enhancing the performance of their practice.

Rules are still useful. They are important guardrails, a mental model to keep us on the road of safety unless there is very good reason to cautiously edge onto the gravely shoulder, or even turn down a completely new path. But always with the understanding of the compromise we have intentionally made, reminding us of the cost that may need to be paid.

Universal anaesthesia rules become a problem when we dogmatically extol them without understanding the foundations of why – or use them as a blunt tool to browbeat our colleagues and assistants.

Rules are shortcuts to express the tension between the benefits and risks of different anaesthetic decisions. All difficult airways in specialty exams might require mandatory awake fiberoptic intubation, but in a real world of patient refusals and modern airway toys & techniques, it is a more nuanced decision. In fact, patient refusal might be the closest we get to an absolute rule – but even this is a negotiable area of greys.

As a mental model for normalising risk, rules are an efficient way to communicate our prioritisation of the risk-benefit tension. A tool for education and standard setting, without requiring the immediate overhead of qualifying and rationalising.

First learn the rules. Then master the rules. And only then can you break the rules.

The danger comes when we confuse the mental model – the guardrails – for the reality. Misidentifying a tool to guide perception and practice, as something we mistakenly believe reality can be bent to. When we make this error, reality has a nasty habit of reasserting itself with unsentimental brutality.

I made my mistakes so you don’t have to. Don’t repeat my mistakes. Make your own mistakes. Make better mistakes.

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