Anesthesiologists play a vital role in the operating room, administering drugs that eliminate pain and keep patients sedated during surgery. As well as overseeing anesthetics, these specialized physicians monitor patients’ vital signs and assist surgeons in creating treatment plans for procedures.
Most anesthesiologists work in a hospital environment, spending long hours in the operating room and checking on patients through recovery. Needing specialized knowledge in cardiovascular and respiratory medicine, anesthesiologists typically study and train for up to 14 years before being able to practice.
If you want to know how to become an anesthesiologist, keep reading to learn about the education requirements and career prospects for this crucial medical profession.
What Is an Anesthesiologist?
Anesthesiologists are physicians who focus on the care and pain relief of surgical patients. In addition to monitoring patients in the operating room, they provide pain treatment and management for chronic pain sufferers, as well as during labor and delivery (such as an epidural).
One of the main responsibilities of an anesthesiologist is determining the type and amount of anesthetic needed for a patient. Information is gathered by conducting an interview and examination. Anesthesiologists communicate this information with the rest of the surgical team, working closely with colleagues to come up with the best treatment plan.
During surgery, the anesthesiologist administers anesthetic to the patient. There are three main types of anesthesia:
- General anesthesia: Sometimes called ‘going under’, general anesthesia is administered through a mask, IV, or breathing tube. General anesthesia affects the entire body and keeps the patient in a state of controlled unconsciousness.
- Local anesthesia: While the patient is awake, local anesthesia is administered by injection and used to numb a small part of the body.
- Regional anesthesia: Used to block pain and ease anxiety, regional anesthesia such as an epidural affects a larger part of the body.
As an integral part of the surgical team, anesthesiologists need to have excellent communication, problem-solving, and organizational skills. Like most doctors, they will also need to have both the mental and physical dexterity and stamina needed to work through long surgeries.
Extensive medical knowledge is required. In order to gain experience, anesthesiologists need to complete several years of study and training before becoming licensed.
The typical study route to becoming an anesthesiologist involves:
- Four years of undergraduate study
- Four years of medical school
- Four years of residency training
- One to two-year post-residency fellowship
Depending on the sub-specialization, some anesthesiologists will study for up to 14 years or more before being eligible for board certification.
Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
After graduating from high school, the first step on the road to becoming an anesthesiologist is to complete a bachelor’s degree. For the best chances of being accepted to medical school, it’s recommended to complete a pre-med major, focusing on chemistry, biology, physics, and math.
To gain access to medical school, you will need to pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) during your undergraduate studies. This assesses students’ medical knowledge and problem-solving abilities.
Pass Medical School
After passing the MCAT and being accepted to medical school, an aspiring anesthesiologist needs to complete a four-year medical degree. This is typically split between study and practice, with lectures and laboratory studies for the first two years, and hands-on experience in hospitals or clinics for the remainder.
Supervised by experienced doctors, students can gain confidence and valuable experience while being able to explore different specialties such as pediatrics, cardiology, and anesthesiology. By working alongside seasoned anesthesiologists, medical students are able to learn about patient care and new procedures.
Complete a Residency
After completing medical school and gaining a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree, anesthesiologists spend four years in a residency program. During the first year, residents work in a variety of hospital rotations such as internal medicine and pediatrics.
For the second and third years of their residency, students learn the fundamental principles of anesthesiology and work in specializations such as cardiac or pediatric anesthesia. The final year is spent on research or advanced clinical training.
Pursue a Fellowship
With the residency complete, anesthesiologists can elect to pursue a fellowship lasting one to two years. Fellowships allow students to focus on a sub-specialty such as neurosurgery, transplant, or dental anesthesiology.
Obtain a License
Like all doctors, in order to practice in the United States, anesthesiologists need to obtain a license. During medical school and residency, students study for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) which must be passed to gain a license.
State licenses are also required. While requirements can differ, all states require a medical degree and completed residency training in anesthesiology. You will also need to pass practical and written exams.
The optional final stage is board certification. Although certification is voluntary, many employers require physicians to be certified as it ensures they meet the gold standard in their field.
To become certified, physicians need to pass an exam set by the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA) or the American Board of Physician Specialties (ABPS).
Although there have been some steps taken in recent years to create robotic anesthesiologists, the need for human doctors is not likely to change anytime soon. While statistics on specialty medicine like anesthesiology are not published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, their figures show employment for surgeons and physicians is expected to grow by up to 18% by 2022.
Anesthesiology is one of the highest paid medical professions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary is $265,990. Of the reported specialties, dental anesthesiologists average the highest wages at over $280,000, while physicians at colleges and universities typically take home around $199,000.
So how do you become an anesthesiologist? It takes many years of study and dedicated training to take up this profession.
If you are in high school, concentrate your studies on sciences like biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as humanities and mathematics. Mature-age students looking for a career change should seek advice from a local college or university about pre-med course requirements.
As a primary caregiver for patients during surgery, an anesthesiologist’s job can be very stressful. But the opportunity to relieve patients’ pain and ensure their survival can make it a fulfilling one as well.