Shared Decision Making in Regional Anesthesia

By Daniel Abraham, MD, and Melanie Donnelly, MD    Jun 14, 2017

Daniel Abraham, MD

Section Editor: Nabil Elkassabany, MD, MSCE

Consider this all too common scenario: You meet a patient scheduled for a total joint arthroplasty. This is your first time meeting the patient, and he has not spoken with anyone from anesthesia before today. You believe this patient is a perfect candidate for a spinal anesthetic, but the patient is nervous and hesitant about the spinal and instead opts for a general anesthetic. He tells you that he is afraid of being paralyzed and/or they know someone who had a bad experience with a spinal. As an anesthesiologist you wonder if this patients’ reluctance could have been avoided with a preoperative meeting on another day, prior to the day of surgery and separated from the stress of the preoperative holding area. And if so, how might preoperative anesthesia education affect his decision?

Melanie Donnelly, MD

Anesthestic choice on the day of surgery can be influenced by multiple factors; patients’ comorbidities, coagulation status, BMI, culture of the institution, surgeon preference, and also the comfort level of the anesthesiologist.[1-4] But how does patient preference factor into this decision? This is an important question, especially in the era of the perioperative surgical home (PSH) where patient satisfaction with surgical care is highlighted. With this in mind, how can we, as anesthesiologists and perioperative physicians, involve patients more concretely in decision-making for their anesthetic in a timely and meaningful way? The first step along this road is making sure the patient is appropriately informed and educated, and that often means preoperative education regarding anesthetic options.


Patient education and how it can affect anesthesia

Preoperative patient education is certainly not a new concept. In fact, patient education forms the underpinnings of the informed consent process. Ideally, the informed consent process includes enough information for patients to make educated decisions about their healthcare. When it comes to anesthesia, through-put pressures in the operating room can influence the consenting process when it occurs immediately preoperatively. This situation is especially evident when there are several anesthetic options to choose from, as is the case when offering blocks to patients for pain control or as an anesthetic. Patients are often not sure about the different anesthetic options available to them when presenting for surgery. It is possible that patients may harbor incorrect assumptions regarding anesthetic management that is derived from a previous occasion, a family member’s experience, or even information researched online.[5.6] In a practice with a preoperative clinic, a fully informed dialogue about anesthetic options can be conveyed in a calm environment.[7] If a preoperative clinic does not exist, the first interaction that a patient has with an anesthesiologist is often in the preoperative holding area before surgery. This is usually a time when the patient’s anxiety level is high, possibly interfering with his or her ability to process new information, and therefore potentially affecting the patient’s ability to appropriately weigh the anesthetic options presented.[8] With this in mind, it is worth considering the utility and merit of introducing information to the patient earlier and in more diverse formats.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania examined the impact of incorporating anesthetic information into a preoperative education course for patients scheduled to undergo total knee arthroplasty. They found that patients who had this early education on anesthetic options were more likely to choose a regional anesthetic in the form of neuraxial anesthesia than those who did not have that educational experience.[9] This study helps demonstrate that patient education is a crucial step toward fostering an environment for informed decision making. Brooks examined similar principles by using an IPad and providing patients with an informational brochure about regional anesthesia options in the preoperative clinic. They discovered that not only did this intervention lead to a 10% increase in their regional anesthesia acceptance rate, it also reduced delays to OR. This reduction in delays to the OR reflects a decreased need to exhaust preoperative time discussing the various anesthetic options with patients who are undecided.[10] Groves also demonstrated a similar principle. They were able to establish that by providing patients with “relevant websites” of anesthesia information and education, the utilization of neuraxial anesthesia increased.[11]

These studies demonstrate that there are a number of ways to educate patients prior to the day of surgery. These improvements can be further reinforced by creating a service whereby an anesthesiologist is available for questions and concerns that a patient may have by way of telephone calls or emails. By introducing this information to patients and educating them before the day of their surgery, we give them the tools necessary to successfully take part and share in the decision regarding their anesthesia.


The concept of shared decision making

Figure 1. The SHARE Approach to shared decision making. (Reprinted from Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2016[12])

Shared Decision Making is the model of including patients and their family in the decision making process (Figure 1). The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has published the “SHARE” approach to this type of process which includes the following 5 steps: 1) Seek your patient’s participation, 2) Help your patient explore and compare treatment options, 3) Assess your patient’s values and preferences, 4) Reach a decision with your patient, 5) Evaluate your patient’s decision.[12] The conventional informed consent discussion typically includes a description of the treatment. However, a full explanation of alternatives and an assessment of how this treatment choice fits within the patient’s values and preferences are often lacking. According to Posner et al., 70% of the informed consent litigation complaints revolve around the risks of treatment.[13] To avoid the pitfalls of using incorrect data, using terms not comprehensible to patients, and avoiding the dissatisfaction that patients express is associated with the paternalistic approach to the consent processes, providers may choose to rely more on the SHARE principles for consent and consider the creation and use of decisions aids.[14] This would allow the patient and family, who may have strong beliefs and views, to communicate with the physicians about their medical management and for both to come together to craft a unique and specific plan: a true ideal of patient-centered care.

Shared decision making has become popular within many specialties across medicine.[15-19] These discussions are now starting to populate the field of anesthesia and chronic pain.[20] One impact of this process is improved patient satisfaction. Flierler showed that 94% of patients wanted to be involved in their anesthetic decision making and that to be involved increased patient satisfaction.[14] Hwang similarly demonstrated that 88% of patients wanted to be involved in their anesthetic, resulting in patients feeling satisfied and respected.[21]

The field of regional anesthesia is a rapidly growing, and can help serve as the face of this movement towards patient education and shared decision making due to the frequent existence of multiple analgesic or anesthetic options and the nuanced decision making that accompanies these options. 


Bringing it all back home: How patient involvement is part of the PSH

The evolving medical landscape is being guided by the "Triple Aim" set out by the Institute of Healthcare Improvement. These aims include improving the individual experience of care, improving the health of populations, and reducing per capita costs.[22] These goals require a collaborative effort for success, and anesthesiologists are counting on the PSH to be that collaborative effort.[23] The principles of the PSH lend themselves to the use of shared decision-making tools as part of the perioperative process, as well as anesthetic discussions taking place before the day of surgery. This allows patients to have their values and preferences regarding their anesthetic choices taken into consideration with ample time prior to the day of surgery. Brooks found that by moving the patient consent process to the preoperative assessment clinic, their practices were more consistent with the triple aim of healthcare improvement.[10]

As our care evolves to meet the triple aim and to accomplish patient-centered care, we need to also upgrade the tools we use to accomplish this care. Our processes for preoperative evaluation need to grow to allow for patient participation in decisions about their anesthetic. This may result in the creation and use of shared decision-making tools, as well as improved preoperative patient education in using multiple modalities. By leading the charge to educate our patients preoperatively and involve them in their care, we are leading the perioperative field into the future. And bringing them into our home: the PSH.



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  10. Brooks BS, Barman J, Ponce BA, Sides A, Vetter TR. An electronic surgical order, undertaking patient education, and obtaining informed consent for regional analgesia before the day of surgery reduce block-related delays. Local Reg Anesth. 2016;9:59-64.
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  12. The SHARE Approach. Content last reviewed September 2016. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.
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  21. Hwang SM, Lee JJ, Jang JS, Gim GH, Kim MC, Lim SY. Patient preference and satisfaction with their involvement in the selection of an anesthetic method for surgery. J Korean Med Sci. 2014;29(2):287-91.
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Daniel Abraham, MD, is a regional anesthesia and acute pain medicine fellow at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, and Melanie Donnelly, MD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Colorado in Denver.

Note: This article originally appeared in the ASRA News, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp. 15-17 (May 2017). 

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