Should More Emergency Physicians be ‘Piloting British Airways’? The Musings of a Trainee: EMJ


Emergency physicians (EPs) routinely manage the sick, undifferentiated patients in whom life-saving interventions need to be executed rapidly. Our Royal College defines emergency medicine as ‘the specialty in which time is critical.’

In severe illness or injury, ‘A’ comes first. Securing a definitive airway is the gateway to the rest of critical care; without one, our sickest patients will usually be carried out of the resuscitation room in body bag. For this reason, emergency airway management must lie within the skillset of the emergency physician.

Rapid sequence induction (RSI) and tracheal intubation are, appropriately, considered core skills for EM trainees in the UK. The second year of ‘Acute Common Care Stem’ (ACCS) core training – the route to advanced EM training – consists of six-month rotations through anaesthesia and intensive care, allowing for ample exposure to critical illness, and development of advanced airway skills.

Despite this, frustratingly, EM-led RSI is a contentious issue in the UK. In 2010, Benger and Hopkinson published a survey in the EMJ that examined the practice of ED RSI across the UK over a 2-week period (1). It revealed that anaesthetists carried out the procedure a whopping 80% of the time (actual percentage likely to be even higher as only particularly ‘airway-keen’ EDs contributed). This starkly contrasts with Australasia and the US, where EM-led RSI is standard of care, with anaesthesia backup made available if difficulty is predicted.

Silo-culture and tribalism remain prominent in UK EDs in 2016, with anaesthetists usually assuming full ‘pilot duties’ when it comes to the airway. However, the landscape is changing, particularly in prominent teaching hospitals – in large part due to a new generation of EPs who’ve completed ACCS.

Additionally, there is some solid literature that suggests EM-led RSI is safe and effective, as long as practiced within a supportive system. Let’s have a look.

Stevenson et al, 2007 (2)

This EMJ publication is a single-centre prospective observational study which investigated the nature of ED RSI practice at a district general hospital in Scotland (Crosshouse Hospital, Kilmarnock) over 3 years. Data was collected via a questionnaire filled out by the intubating doctor immediately after the procedure. The authors were most interested in who was performing the procedure, and whether a specialty was implicated in airway-related complications (categories: desaturation, hypotension, aspiration, oesophageal intubation, cardiac arrest). In short, they wanted to know EPs were worthy of wielding laryngoscopes.

Over the 40-month period, 199 ED RSIs were performed. EPs carried out 44% of these – far higher numbers than contributing departments to Benger and Hopkinson’s survey (published 3 years later). Anaesthetists achieved superior laryngoscopic views and higher rates of first pass success (91% versus 82%) but promisingly, there was an identical overall success rate (97%), and almost identical complication rates.

The crucial detail from this paper is that the department had high instances of senior presence from both specialties during ED RSI. This suggests a supportive training environment, and a collaborative approach to emergency management. Ongoing inter-specialty synergy has probably further propagated safe EM-led RSI in this department in the years since the paper was published.

Kerslake et al, 2015 (3)

A more recent publication which supports EPs at the head-end is this paper from Resuscitation. Similarly, it is a single-centre prospective observational study, where 12 years of ‘ED Intubation Registry’ data was analysed.

Interestingly, this hospital (the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh – a large, urban teaching hospital) has a protocol dictating that a senior anaesthetist is contacted to supervise all ‘drug-assisted intubations’ (invariably RSI). The anaesthetist only steps in if added expertise is required due to a predicted/encountered difficult case.

78% of 3738 tracheal intubations were performed by EPs – unprecedented numbers in the UK. EPs were found to achieve similar laryngoscopic views, but lower first pass success over the whole 13 year period. In order to reflect modern practice, the authors performed a subgroup analysis on intubations performed since 2007, which demonstrated improved EP performance – first pass success matched the anaesthetists (88% versus 87% respectively). This is probably a reflection of ACCS training being introduced relatively recently.

This paper demonstrates indisputably excellent numbers, and is further evidence that appropriately trained EPs, when part of a collaborative system, are fully competent airway practitioners. By formally protocolising dual specialty involvement with ED RSI, rapid progress has clearly been made at this institution.

National Audit Project 4, 2011 (4)


NAP4 was a very high profile publication from the Royal College of Anaesthetists which captured detailed reports of major complications from airway management across the UK over 1 year. Reports included cases from the ED and ICU as well as the anaesthetic environment. NAP4 has been widely discussed around the world because the lessons from it have been so valuable for all airway practitioners.

A headline finding from NAP4 was that out-of-theatre airway management is associated with a significantly higher complication rate than the anaesthetic room (at least one in four major airway complications occurred in the ED/ICU). Furthermore, these complications were far more likely to be fatal.

Close inspection of the paper revealed some eye-opening analysis with regards to events in the ED: Many complications were avoidable, and could be attributable to the visiting (often junior) anaesthetist being unfamiliar with the environment.

Analysis of the ED-based events included mention of:

  • Communication breakdown in the resus team.
  • Lack of team-based contingency planning (‘failing to plan for failure’).
  • Failing to locate/use appropriate equipment (e.g. waveform capnography).
  • Failure to follow usual protocol due to high stress levels and novel distractions.

In order to combat these examples of avoidable error in the ED, NAP4 recommend:

  • Development of excellent communications between specialities involved in emergency airway management – this encourages cross-specialty planning for commonly encountered airway problems.
  • Joint training of EM/anaesthetics/ICU staff. Ideally simulation and team training.
  • Regular audit of emergency airway management in resus.

Crosshouse Hospital and the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh have demonstrated that adherence to NAP4s recommendations is more achievable with a collaborative approach to emergency airway management.

Opportunity for EM to take a leading role

Here in the UK, the reality is that most of us probably work in hospitals without protocolised co-operation and support from anaesthetics, and find ourselves frustrated by an institutional reluctance to us utilisating our skill-set.

If EPs/EM trainees can take a leading role in the pursuit of a closer relationship with the anaesthetics department, then perhaps the process of ushering in culture change can happen more rapidly, even in the traditionally less progressive hospitals.

The key is building better communication channels with the anaesthetics department. ACCS trainees have an important role, as they are perfectly placed to ‘start the conversation’ whilst working in theatres and ITU. Joint training initiatives can be lobbied for, and enthusiasm can be expressed.

Even if local policy dictates that anaesthetists are the only practitioners permitted to perform ED RSI, EM can still take the lead with auditing/surveying practice. This will foster improved communication and joint teaching (might stimulate creation of EM/critical care joint audit meeting).

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 01.58.09Surveying ED RSI practice via a questionnaire filled in by the intubator post-procedure is a project that I have initiated at my own hospital. The project was inspired by the papers mentioned in this post, and the Australia New Zealand Airway Registry, which I was exposed to whilst working in Melbourne. If emergency clinicians can identify opportunities for improving ‘anaesthetics practice’ in the ED then attitudes might start to change.

EM-led quality improvement projects involving airway management will almost certainly be welcomed by anaesthesia, being the leading specialty that they are for pioneering patient safety initiatives. For EM trainees keen to manage airways (like myself), demonstrating a persistent interest (i.e. beyond the 6-month anaesthesia rotation) should be considered as important as demonstrating competence, as it will be that interest which stimulates local, and UK-wide culture-change.

The appropriateness of an ED doctor at the head-end has been a circular (and boring) debate for years. Anaesthetists will always maintain a greater level of technical prowess when it comes to advanced airway management for obvious reasons. However, an EP who has demonstrated competence and ‘currency’ is perfectly qualified to manage the airway, and will have the advantage of more familiarity with the resus environment, and the luxury of initiating proceedings without delay. Bottom line? The ‘anaesthesia versus EM’ argument is moot – specialty is irrelevant when it comes to these patients, it is the skillset which matters. Anaesthetics? EM? ITU? We are all resuscitationists.

Final thoughts

It is worth remembering that EM is a specialty which struggles to retain trainees in the UK. An enormously attractive aspect of working in A&E is the critical care element, but all too often, our time in resus gets trumped by pressures to meet targets (‘the anaesthetist has arrived, go back to majors and pick up another patient’). The ability to manage the airway is symbolic of a true resuscitationist, and empowering trainees with that responsibility will galvanise those already in training, and attract more junior doctors to our great specialty. In the long run it will pay off.

Robert Lloyd

Worth Reading/Listening

‘RSI in the ED; should EM be taking the lead?’ – HEFTEMCast (podcast)

‘JC: ED RSI – you can do it’ – St. Emlyn’s (blog post)

‘John Hinds on Airway at RCEMBelfast’ – RCEM FOAMed Network (podcast)

‘NAP4 Major Airway Complications in Emergency Departments’ – Professor Jonathan Benger (lecture)


ADD-ON (23/08/16): An Important Tweet…

The day following publication of this post, a leading voice in the world of EM tweeted this:

On 1 December 2015, the Royal College of Anaesthetists and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine released a joint statement on emergency airway management (5). It echoes the recommendations made by the NAP4 report, and is very progressive with regards to the role of the emergency physician, and the importance of interdepartmental training. The statement dovetails beautifully with the points made in this blog, and is essential reading. Here is a snippet:

‘Opportunities for the maintenance of rapid sequence induction and tracheal intubation skills by emergency physicians should be provided within each acute hospital.’

Many thanks to both colleges for making their position clear on such an important issue in UK EM, and to Dr. Reid for bringing this to the attention of the author!



  1. Benger J, Hopkinson S. Rapid sequence induction of anaesthesia in UK emergency departments: a national census. Emerg Med J. 2011 Mar 1;28(3):217–20
  2. Stevenson AGM, Graham CA, Hall R, Korsah P, McGuffie AC. Tracheal intubation in the emergency department: the Scottish district hospital perspective. Emerg Med J. 2007 Jun 1;24(6):394–7 
  3. Tracheal intubation in an urban emergency department in Scotland: A prospective, observational study of 3738 intubations
  4. Cook TM, Woodall N, Harper J, Benger J; Fourth National Audit Project. Major complications of airway management in the UK: results of the Fourth National Audit Project of the Royal College of Anaesthetists and the Difficult Airway Society. Part 2: intensive care and emergency departments. Br J Anaesth 2011;106:632-642.
  5. Emergency Airway Management: A joint position statement from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine and the Royal College of Anaesthetists