Joint Royal College Ambulance Liaison Committee Airway Working Group commentary
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Journal titleEmergency Medicine Journal
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AbstractThe publication of the paper by the Joint Royal College Ambulance Liaison Committee Airway Working Group (JRCALC AWG) will no doubt start a fierce debate among the paramedic and medical professions about prehospital intubation. Prehospital intubation performed by paramedics is a profession-defining skill, has been practised by paramedics in the UK for over 20 years, and has been a mainstay of prehospital airway management. In a survey of paramedics in the USA, prehospital intubation was ranked as a more important skill than defibrillation and patient assessment.1 Most of the literature reviewed by the JRCALC AWG was from the USA and included studies of drug-assisted intubation. Wang and associates2 examined 592 attempts at intubation in one year and found 536 of these to be successful (90.5%); another study of 264 paediatric prehospital intubations reported a much higher success rate of 99%,3 Bulger and colleagues4 in Seattle reported a success rate of 98.4% and in Bellingham, Washington, Wayne and Friedland5 reported a 95.5% success rate. It must be said that there are significant differences in the training and education of paramedics between the USA and the UK. The national standard curriculum for emergency medical technicians in the USA6 states that paramedics require only five successful intubations before graduation, whereas in the UK until recently paramedics needed to achieve 25 successful intubations. It is recognised that achieving intubation of the trachea does not necessarily mean the individual is proficient or competent in the skill of intubation. However, it must also be noted that achieving 25 intubations provides the paramedic with a higher degree of proficiency and competency than those achieving five. Limited capacity in the clinical placement circuit and the increased use of supraglottic devices for anaesthetic procedures in hospital means that paramedics are having difficulty in achieving the target of 25; as a result the accreditation bodies no longer demand that the 25 target is met, although there is still a need to learn the skill. In the future it is likely that training opportunities will be even more difficult to secure, and so the profession now finds itself at a crossroads. We need to look at what is right and what is safe for the patient, and importantly what is achievable by the profession. This will mean looking for alternative ways of achieving competence, for example, human simulation laboratories or looking at alternative airways. Recent evidence suggests that increasing the intubation experience of paramedics leads to better prehospital outcomes.7 Further evidence suggests there is no difference between experienced paramedics and doctors in performing successful intubation in prehospital cardiac arrest.8 Therefore, rather than removing the skill of intubation for all paramedics the focus should be on ensuring a proportion, for example, those in senior or advanced roles, are given the opportunity to acquire the necessary experience. If we adopt this approach the more exposure these clinicians will have the more proficient they will become, and this will result in improved outcomes. The JRCALC AWG has recognised this as a possible solution to the current problem. Ambulance services would be able to structure their response model to reflect this clinical provision and use these senior clinicians appropriately, not only to provide the expertise but also to supervise and lead on patient care at critical incidents. By using these senior clinicians the impact upon operational performance and resources will be minimised. With the training and revalidation problems we face the time is right for newly qualified paramedics and existing ones unable to maintain their intubation skills to adopt an alternative to intubation. Supraglottic airway devices are an alternative to intubation, but the suggestion by the JRCALC AWG that we should simply replace prehospital intubation by paramedics with supraglottic devices needs to be debated and researched. There is little evidence to support the effectiveness of supraglottic devices in prehospital non-fasted patients. Research to date has focussed primarily on the use of these devices in hospitals. We have no evidence to suggest that these devices are safe outside of hospitals; thus we need further research about their effectiveness. It is a gold standard in trauma that drug-assisted intubation is the best way to intubate the patient, and it is accepted that this should only be done by skilled operatives who perform the procedure regularly. However, although the JRCALC AWG agrees there is little evidence that prehospital intubation without anaesthetic drugs improves patient outcomes, there is also little evidence (especially from the UK) that prehospital intubation in patients in cardiac arrest is harmful. There are many examples in medicine in which treatment is given when it has not been proved to be effective, but the treatment continues as there is no evidence it is harmful. As there is no UK evidence that prehospital intubation by paramedics is harmful, the profession needs to continue this practice for patients in cardiac arrest—but with the skill performed by experienced senior and advanced paramedics working in a robust governance framework to ensure revalidation and maintenance of these skills. In the meantime, we need to explore the use of alternative devices including supraglottic devices, to decide if they are safe as an alternative to prehospital intubation especially for cardiac arrest, and to see if they will improve patient outcomes., https://emj.bmj.com/content/27/3/171.long. This is an Open Access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited and the use is non-commercial. See: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/emj.2009.090381