How to Become an Anesthesiologist

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Anesthesia describes a broad range of drugs that are given to patients so they don't feel pain during surgery or medical procedures. An anesthesiologist is a physician who has completed years of specialty training and is licensed to administer these drugs.

Education Requirements

If you want to be an anesthesiologist, the first step in your professional education is medical school, which requires four years of study beyond the bachelor's degree. Medical school admissions are very competitive, so prepare by getting a solid foundation in life sciences, chemistry, physics, mathematics and psychology. Some colleges and universities offer a prescribed curriculum and a major in pre-med, but it is not necessary to complete such a program as long as you meet prerequisites. Successful medical school applicants have usually achieved an undergraduate grade point average of 3.61 or higher and earned a score of at least 510 on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Three strong letters of recommendation are required, too. Get them from individuals who know you well, not necessarily the professors in whose class you earned an A. Recommendations carry more weight when they provide specifics about your academic record, work or volunteer experience and your aptitude for the rigors of the medical profession.

You can become a physician by attending an accredited medical school or an accredited college of osteopathy. Entrance requirements, costs and curriculum are essentially the same for both kinds of institution. The difference between a graduate of medical school (M.D.) and a graduate of osteopathy school (D.O) is philosophy of practice. Osteopathic physicians treat the body as an integrated whole, whereas M.D.s are practitioners of allopathic medicine, meaning they are focused on treating symptoms of disease. Both osteopathic and allopathic physicians can prescribe medication and perform surgery.

Medical and osteopath schools take four years to complete. In the first two years, students participate in lecture and laboratory courses in advanced life sciences, pharmacology, medical ethics and introduction to clinical practice. During the last two years, they take part in supervised clinical rotations, gaining practical knowledge and experience that will help them choose the specialty field in which they will eventually practice. After graduation, new physicians undertake additional training in the form of an internship and residency. An internship is one year of general medical practice and necessary for licensure. After an internship, physicians undertake residency training to build the specialized knowledge required for their subfield. Residencies vary in length according to the medical specialty. Anesthesiology is three year residency. Some anesthesiologists choose to specialize further and complete additional years of training, called a fellowship. Cardiac anesthesiology, pain management and critical care anesthesiology are among the highly specialized subfields that require additional training.

After completion of training, an anesthesiologist must obtain a license to practice the specialty in the state where he or she will work. Board certification is not required by law for practice, although it may be required by employers. To earn the designation, an anesthesiologist must pass both oral and written components of an exam. Board certification is a credential that demonstrates mastery of specialty knowledge and a commitment to the practice of anesthesiology.

On the Job

Anesthesiologists help ensure the safety of their patients during medical procedures, including surgery. An anesthesiologist may administer a local anesthetic by injection, such as when a mole is removed. The patient is fully awake, but experiences a sensation of numbness in the region of the body affected by the drug. Anesthesiologists sedate patients by using intravenous drugs, inducing calm or rendering the patient unaware, though still conscious. For surgery, a general anesthetic is used in a procedure often referred to as "being put to sleep." A patient is completely unconscious and unresponsive to pain.

Anesthesiologists meet with patients before any procedure to explain how the anesthetic will be administered, as well as any risks and possible side effects. After administering an anesthetic, the anesthesiologist (or nurse anesthetist) remains with the patient to monitor heart rate, blood pressure and breathing, making any adjustments as necessary.

Cost of Medical School

The average cost of one year of medical school at a public institution is $34,592 for in-state students and $58,668 for out-of-state students. This figure includes tuition, fees and health insurance. Costs at a private institution are generally much higher. Columbia, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Harvard and Duke are among the most expensive medical schools in the country, each costing students more than $60,000 a year. College of osteopathy are comparable in terms of cost. In fact, since there are more private schools than public schools, the cost of becoming an osteopathic physician could be greater than earning an M.D.

Becoming a Nurse Anesthetist

If you're interested in the field of anesthesiology and medical school is not an option, consider becoming a nurse anesthetist. A nurse anesthetist is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) with a master's degree or doctorate focusing on anesthesia. Depending on the program, the degree requires 2 to 4 years of study and supervised clinical practice. Currently, there are 113 accredited nurse anesthetist programs in the U.S. Although earning a master's degree online is acceptable for some types of nursing practice, particularly administrative and non-clinical roles, becoming a nurse anesthetist requires attendance in residence. As a student, you'll be working with professionals in a variety of settings to get the training and experience you'll need for certification and to get a job in the field.

To work as a nurse anesthetist requires certification by the National Boards of Certification and Recertification of Nurse Anesthetists. Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) work with anesthesiologists, surgeons, physicians and dentists in educating patients, administering drugs and providing aftercare. Like anesthesiologists, they work in operating rooms, emergency rooms, cardiac units and outpatient clinics. Surgical schedules often begin early in the morning and go to 6 or 7 p.m. during the week. Emergencies can occur anytime, so an anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist is needed on staff nights, weekends and holidays.

Nurse anesthetists are among the highest paid registered nurses. The average annual salary for an RN is $62,953, although it varies by employer, experience and geographic location. The average salary for a CRNA is $157,000, with salaries ranging from $105,400 to $242,000.

Salary and Job Outlook for Anesthesiologists

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks data and makes growth projections for all civilian jobs. The Bureau looks at physicians and surgeons as a group and does not distinguish by specialty. According to the Bureau, physicians and surgeons earn at least $100.00 per hour, or $208,000 per year. If you're looking at which medical specialty earns the highest salary, anesthesiologists are among them. Current data puts anesthesiologists' salaries in the range of $325,083 and $425,409 per year. Salaries can vary depending on geographic location, employer, additional skills and the number of years spent in the field.

The job growth for physicians and surgeons is expected to be about 13 percent through 2026, a rate that's faster than average, when compared to all other occupations. As the population ages, there will be greater demand for surgeries and medical procedures that require the services of anesthesiologists. The investment of time and money required to become a licensed anesthesiologist limits the number of individuals entering the profession. In the future, there will likely be enough opportunities for those qualified to fill them.


About the Author

Denise Dayton is a a freelance writer who specializes in business, education and technology. She has written for, Library Journal, The Searcher, Bureau of Education and Research, and corporate clients.