This 9 minute video demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of an intubation strategy that relies on dissociation with ketamine.
The essential strength, compared to RSI, is that a breathing technique keeps the patient breathing during laryngoscopy, which transforms the procedure from high-adrenaline to highly controlled. You see in this video that my (fabulous) resident was able to take his time, try different blades, slowly advance and adjust while using view optimization techniques as the patient continued to breathe. This is an extremely powerful way to add safety to the riskiest procedure commonly performed in acute care. We would have been able to carry on with his attempts for longer, had we not been inconvenienced by the arrival of a trauma patient.
Keeping the patient breathing during intubation has a long history in emergency medicine, starting with the brutal and often unsuccessful blind nasal intubation, which, fortunately, is now seldom performed. Many of us learned to do operating room style awake intubation, which relies on thorough local anesthesia using atomized/nebulized/topicalized/regionalized lidocaine, so the patient can remain truly awake and breathing during the procedure. Lidocaine-focused awake intubation is a fabulous technique that requires expertise and equipment not available to all acute care providers, but also–depending on your level of skill–time and patient cooperation. Time and cooperation is something we may not have downstairs or on the side of the road,* but what we lack in time and cooperation, we can make up for in ketamine.
When we use dissociative-dose ketamine to do the heavy lifting in allowing the patient to tolerate laryngoscopy, we obviate much of the needed topicalization expertise/supplies, abbreviate the needed time, and add cooperation with ketamine, cooperation in a vial. The patient becomes dissociated, breathing but unconscious, which is why I use the term breathing intubation rather than the much more accepted term awake intubation to describe it.
Many patients who receive dissociative-dose ketamine without a paralytic will have some muscle rigidity, and some will develop laryngospasm (which is glottic muscle rigidity). The patient in this video had some rigidity, which resolved and was not a problem, and this is usually the case. But patients who get ketamine to facilitate laryngoscopy are at much higher risk than procedural sedation patients (who are not having their airway instrumented) to develop laryngospasm and occasionally jaw rigidity, which, together, can cause an immediately dangerous cannot intubate cannot ventilate scenario. Anytime KOBI is being undertaken, a paralytic must be immediately available, ideally drawn up in a syringe, so that the procedure can be converted to a paralyzed technique at any point.
How KOBI fits into our expanding airway toolkit is expertly described by Andrew Merelman and Michael Perlmutter in this WJEM paper.
*some airway experts disagree