Question of the Week

October 21, 2002


"Anesthesiologists have long believed anecdotally that natural redheads needed more to put them under. According to a study presented at this month's meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists in Orlando, they're right. Researchers at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky, studied the anesthesia requirements of 20 healthy Caucasian women, 10 with bright red hair and the other 10 with dark hair. All were put under with the general anesthetic, desflurane. Those with red hair needed 20% more of the drug than the others. 'That people with the red hair phenotype require more anesthesia is not only of practical importance, but suggests that genetic characteristics contribute to differences in anesthetic requirements in humans,' said Edwin B. Liem, MD, lead author of the study and an anesthesiologist at the Outcomes Research Institute at the university."

The local ABC-affiliate major-market station has been reporting this story. I have heard this story reported during both the local and national NPR news reports. Talk show hosts are joking about it. The local evening news mentioned it. The AMA mentioned the study and it spread. Twenty people in one study, and red heads are being told that their bodies work differently. Twenty women, ten of whom had red hair and ten of whom had dark hair, were used to support an anecdotal theory that already existed.

Now what?

Do anesthesiologists automatically give more anesthesia? Is that safe? Are men with red hair affected? These were all healthy women, what about those with chronic medical problems (who would likely need surgery). Can twenty healthy Caucasian women speak for the world? Does this work with other forms of anesthesia and pain medication? What good is being done for the public by releasing this information? Why did the AMA choose to make this information available? What issues regarding genetic differences and health issues that are linked to physical (visible) characteristics could this bring up? This is not to say that this is bad information, but where do we go from here?

Questions of the Week:
What social and legal consequences may result if insurance companies, employers, and others feel justified making decisions based upon physical attributes? Are people likely to make improper generalizations with these limited results?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
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I look forward to reading what you have to say.

[email protected]
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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