Physician anaesthetists versus non-physician providers of anaesthesia for surgical patients

Sharon R Lewis, Amanda Nicholson, Andrew F Smith, Phil Alderson
Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014 July 11, (7): CD010357

BACKGROUND: With increasing demand for surgery, pressure on healthcare providers to reduce costs, and a predicted shortfall in the number of medically qualified anaesthetists it is important to consider whether non-physician anaesthetists (NPAs), who do not have a medical qualification, are able to provide equivalent anaesthetic services to medically qualified anaesthesia providers.

OBJECTIVES: To assess the safety and effectiveness of different anaesthetic providers for patients undergoing surgical procedures under general, regional or epidural anaesthesia. We planned to consider results from studies across countries worldwide (including developed and developing countries).

SEARCH METHODS: We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, EMBASE and CINAHL on 13 February 2014. Our search terms were relevant to the review question and not limited by study design or outcomes. We also carried out searches of clinical trials registers, forward and backward citation tracking and grey literature searching.

SELECTION CRITERIA: We considered all randomized controlled trials (RCTs), non-randomized studies (NRS), non-randomized cluster trials and observational study designs which had a comparison group. We included studies which compared an anaesthetic administered by a NPA working independently with an anaesthetic administered by either a physician anaesthetist working independently or by a NPA working in a team supervised or directed by a physician anaesthetist.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Three review authors independently assessed trial quality and extracted data, contacting study authors for additional information where required. In addition to the standard methodological procedures, we based our risk of bias assessment for NRS on the specific NRS risk of bias tool presented at the UK Cochrane Contributors' Meeting in March 2012. We considered case-mix and type of surgical procedure, patient co-morbidity, type of anaesthetic given, and hospital characteristics as possible confounders in the studies, and judged how well the authors had adjusted for these confounders.

MAIN RESULTS: We included six NRS with 1,563,820 participants. Five were large retrospective cohort studies using routinely collected hospital or administrative data from the United States (US). The sixth was a smaller cohort study based on emergency medical care in Haiti. Two were restricted to obstetric patients whilst the others included a range of surgical procedures. It was not possible to combine data as there was a degree of heterogeneity between the included studies.Two studies failed to find a difference in the risk of death in women undergoing caesarean section when given anaesthesia by NPAs compared with physician anaesthetists, both working independently. One study reported there was no difference in mortality between independently working provider groups. One compared mortality risks between US states that had, or had not, 'opted-out' of federal insurance requirements for physician anaesthetists to supervise or direct NPAs. This study reported a lower mortality risk for NPAs working independently compared with physician anaesthetists working independently in both 'opt-out' and 'non-opt out' states.One study reported a lower mortality risk for NPAs working independently compared with supervised or directed NPAs. One reported a higher mortality risk for NPAs working independently than in a supervised or directed NPA group but no statistical testing was presented. One reported a lower mortality risk in the NPA group working independently compared with the supervised or directed NPA group in both 'opt-out' and 'non-opt out' states before the 'opt-out' rule was introduced, but a higher mortality risk in 'opt-out' states after the 'opt-out' rule was introduced. One reported only one death and was unable to detect a risk in mortality. One reported that the risk of mortality and failure to rescue was higher for NPAs who were categorized as undirected than for directed NPAs.Three studies reported the risk of anaesthesia-related complications for NPAs working independently compared to physician anaesthetists working independently. Two failed to find a difference in the risk of complications in women undergoing caesarean section. One failed to find a difference in risk of complications between groups in 'non-opt out' states. This study reported a lower risk of complications for NPAs working independently than for physician anaesthetists working independently in 'opt-out' states before the 'opt-out' rule was introduced, but a higher risk after, although these differences were not tested statistically.Two studies reported that the risk of complications was generally lower for NPAs working independently than in the NPA supervised or team group but no statistical testing was reported. One reported no evidence of increased risk of postoperative complications in an undirected NPA group versus a directed NPA group.The risk of bias and assessment of confounders was particularly important for this review. We were concerned about the use of routine data for research and the likely accuracy of such databases to determine the intervention and control groups, thus judging four studies at medium risk of inaccuracy, one at low and one, for which there was insufficient detail, at an unclear risk. Whilst we expected that mortality would have been accurately reported in record systems, we thought reporting may not be as accurate for complications, which relied on the use of codes. Studies were therefore judged as at high risk or an unclear risk of bias for the reporting of complications data. Four of the six studies received funding, which could have influenced the reporting and interpretation of study results. Studies considered confounders of case-mix, co-morbidity and hospital characteristics with varying degrees of detail and again we were concerned about the accuracy of the coding of data in records and the variables considered during assessment. Five of the studies used multivariate logistic regression models to account for these confounders. We judged three as being at low risk, one at medium risk and one at high risk of incomplete adjustment in analysis.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: No definitive statement can be made about the possible superiority of one type of anaesthesia care over another. The complexity of perioperative care, the low intrinsic rate of complications relating directly to anaesthesia, and the potential confounding effects within the studies reviewed, all of which were non-randomized, make it impossible to provide a definitive answer to the review question.

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