How Long Does It Take To Become An Anesthesiologist? [Overview and Breakdown]

What is an anesthesiologist?

An anesthesiologist is a medical doctor who specializes in the medical field of anesthesiology. An anesthesiologist may hold either a Doctor Osteopathic Medicine (DO) Degree or a Doctor of Medicine (MD). These medical professionals have been specially trained to use anesthesia on patients before and during various medical procedures and surgeries.

The anesthetics that an anesthesiologist uses vary greatly and may include mild numbing agents to general anesthesia. Anesthesiologists work as a team with other medical professionals including doctors, surgeons, surgical technologists and nurses.

Anesthesiologists must be extensively trained in not only anesthetics but also pharmacology, physiology and other areas that directly relate to administering anesthesia to patients and monitoring them throughout surgery.

They must know how to monitor a patient's blood pressure, airways and respiration rates, as well as their pulmonary and cardiovascular health throughout a medical procedure. Should any of these areas falter, an anesthesiologist must know how to resuscitate the patient or use other means to ensure the patient is returned to health.

Related: Learn About Being a Doctor

Educational Track

A doctorate degree is the entry-level educational requirement for an anesthesiologist.

Step by Step Educational Path of an Anesthesiologist

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree. Since medical school does not require a candidate to enter a designated pre-medical degree program, earning an undergraduate degree in any field is acceptable for an aspiring anesthesiologist. However, there are still a handful of courses that an undergraduate may take to become fulfill the prerequisites associated with medical school, such as biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics.
  1. Apply to medical school. In order to become an anesthesiologist, individuals must gain a four-year medical school education to earn a doctor of medicine (M.D.) or doctor of osteopathy (D.O.) degree. The application process is highly competitive, and takes into account the overall GPA, letters of recommendation, and MCAT scores of an applicant. The Medical College Admissions Test is a standardized, multiple-choice exam used by medical schools to assess an applicant’s knowledge of science concepts, as well as their problem-solving and critical thinking skills. The examination is generally taken during the junior year of undergraduate school.
  1. Complete a medical school program. The first two years of medical school are primarily spent in the classroom, studying subjects like microbiology, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, pathology, medical ethics, and anatomy. During the remaining two years of medical school, students begin to gain hands-on experience caring for patients in medical facilities, such as hospitals and clinics. These clinical rotations are supervised by seasoned physicians, and allow students to explore a variety of specialties that include pediatrics, gynecology, cardiology, and geriatrics.
  1. 4. Complete a residency in anesthesiology. Upon graduating from medical school, physicians undergo four years of specialized training that include one year of rotations and/or internship related to general medicine (such as internal medical, pediatrics and emergency medicine), followed by three years of a rigorous anesthesiologist education.
  1. Pursue a fellowship in a sub-specialty. Post-residency fellowship programs are optional. Typically lasting one to two years, physicians concentrate on a specific area of anesthesiology of their choice, such as neurosurgery, pediatric, transplant or dental anesthesiology.
  1. Obtain a license. In order to work in the United States as an anesthesiologist, a doctor must become licensed in the state where they wish to gain employment. In addition to passing a two-part examination, physicians must also fulfill additional requirements set by the state.

Upon completion of an anesthesiology residency, a doctor then becomes eligible to sit for the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA) exam. Although this step is optional, nearly 90 percent of anesthesiologists are board-certified says Jason Begalke, D.O. in What Does an Anesthesiologist Do?.

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Anesthesiologist Salaries and Job Outlook

Anesthesiology is a high-paying profession.
Anesthesiology is a high-paying profession.

Anesthesiologists are well-known for making a good salary, with an average pay ranging between $260,000 and $300,000 per year. This varies primarily based upon your experience and location. Some anesthesiologists earn well over $600,000 per year, while others barely break $100,000.

To ensure the pay you desire, research the location you plan to work in and see how in-demand anesthesiologists are. If there are multiple places you would be comfortable working in, compare them. You will be able to build work experience in a place of high-demand, leading to higher pay.

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According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of all physicians is expected to grow. The field is predicted to grow by seven percent by 2028, which is faster than most occupations. This means there will be plenty of employment opportunities for you once you have completed your education.

What is the Fastest Way to Become an Anesthesiologist? 

The road to becoming an anesthesiologist is a long one. You won’t find many shortcuts on this career path, and any time decreases will come only from hard work. You might take summer school during your bachelor’s or medical school to quicken the pace to graduation. You might also aspire only to become a general anesthesiologist instead of specializing, as that fellowship will take more time. 

 

The average salary of an anesthesiologist

The average salary of an anesthesiologist in the United States is $343,412 per year. Several factors can affect an anesthesiologist's salary, including geographic location, training, experience and place of work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, anesthesiologists have one of the highest-paying occupations in the nation.

Related: 12 Healthcare Jobs That Pay Well

Procedural Expertise

From a procedural viewpoint, an anesthesiologist's work starts well in advance of surgery. In recent decades, the role of the anesthesiologist has expanded beyond the administration of anesthesia to include an extensive assessment of a person's ability to tolerate anesthesia. By doing so, anesthesia can be delivered safely and recovery can be smoother and problem-free.

Known as perioperative medicine, the approach involves the preoperative (before the operation), intraoperative (during the operation), and postoperative (after the operation) phases.

Intraoperative

Depending on the type of anesthesia used, you will be prepped for your procedure by the anesthesiologist, nurse, or surgical technologist. This may involve inserting an intravenous (IV) line into a vein or hooking you up to electrodes to monitor your heart and respiration.

The type of anesthesia chosen will depend largely on the surgery and your medical condition. It may include sedatives, which make you sleepy, and analgesics, which ease pain. The different types of anesthesia are broadly described as:

  • Local anesthesia (agents, either topical or injectable, given to temporarily block pain in a specific part of the body)
  • Regional anesthesia (injected agents, either spinal or epidural, to numb a portion of the body)
  • General anesthesia (an agent, given either by mask or an IV line, to induce unconsciousness)
  • Monitored anesthesia care (also known as “twilight sleep”)

Depending on the condition being treated, an endotracheal tube may be inserted into your trachea (windpipe) to provide oxygen via mechanical ventilation.

Throughout the operation, the anesthesiologist will monitor your vital signs (including heart rate, blood pressure, heart rhythm, body temperature, and breathing) to ensure that you are safe and your organs are functioning normally.

Types of Anesthesia Used for Surgery

Postoperative

Once the operation is complete, the anesthesiologist will cease the anesthetic, and you will monitored. Once you are aroused, you will be watched for side effects and complications and treated as needed.

Depending on the type of anesthetic used and/or the duration of its delivery, the anesthesiologist may conduct a separate postoperative assessment, checking for complications such as nausea, sore throat, dental injury, nerve injury, eye injury, altered lung function, or change in your mental status.

Industry

In 2017, anesthesiologists earned a median annual salary of $269,000 or $129.62 per hour. Connecticut, North Dakota, Iowa, California, North Dakota and New Jersey report higher salaries for anesthesiologists. If you specialize, you can earn more.

What You Won’t Love About Anesthesiology

While anesthesiology is great, it isn’t perfect.

Anesthesiologists are unsung heroes, often not receiving the recognition they deserve. Patients will rarely thank you as the doctor. That gratitude gets directed to the surgeon. And oftentimes, others will consider you the sidekick to the surgeon, the Robin to their Batman.

If you’re not fond of high-stress situations requiring quick decision making, then steer clear of anesthesiology. While it’s often calm and relaxed, things can and will go wrong, and a patient’s life will be in your hands.

And lastly, mid-level encroachment into the field of anesthesiology is a growing concern. Mid-level providers, such as CRNA’s, are lobbying for independent practice rights, although this is controversial and is something I will explore in a future post. Many hospitals are now adopting an anesthesia care team model whereby an MD anesthesiologist simultaneously supervises several CRNA’s, each of whom is in an operating room.

This has raised concerns of decreasing employment opportunities for anesthesiologists. However, there are still many opportunities to work in the OR 1-on-1 with the patient, particularly in larger and more complicated cases that require a physician’s expertise.

Steps for becoming an Anesthesiologist

The first step in education for anesthesiologists is a bachelor’s degree.  Anesthesiologist schooling does not require a designated pre-medical degree program, but we recommend completing a bachelor’s in the physical sciences to better meet your requirements for medical school. Anesthesiologist majors include biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and health sciences.

Earning a four-year medical degree is the basic criteria to become an anesthesiologist. You also need med school to pursue a doctor of medicine (M.D) or doctor of osteopathy (D.O) degree.  Med school is one of the most competitive forms of education, and admission depends on how you fare on the MCAT. The MCAT, or the Medical College Admissions Test, is a standardized, multiple-choice exam used to determine a candidate's knowledge of science concepts, as well as their problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Most medical schools require the MCAT, but luckily, some medical schools don’t require the MCAT.

Most medical school programs take four years to complete. An aspiring anesthesiologist’s goal in medical school is to obtain a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO). During the initial two years, students will take general medicine courses like microbiology, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, pathology, medical ethics, and anatomy.  During the remaining two years of medical school, students start to gain practical experience caring for patients in medical facilities, such as hospitals and clinics. Clinical rotations are administered by experienced physicians and permit students to explore a variety of specialties that include pediatrics, gynecology, cardiology, and geriatrics.

At the end of medical school, aspiring anesthesiologists complete a residency for between three to seven years. Residency includes clinical anesthesia training. To successfully enroll in a residency program, students must perform well in school and obtain letters of recommendation.

Anesthesiology might feel like an already specialized field, but you can specialize even further into neurosurgery, transplants, or even dental anesthesiology. Following residency, you can take a fellowship that will lead you closer to a specialist certification.

Like all medical professionals, anesthesiologists must obtain licensure from the American Board of Anesthesiology to legally practice. This usually entails writing two exams, a basic and advanced. And, anesthesiologists must obtain continuing education credits. Different states may have different requirements on how to maintain that license.

Do anesthesiologists make good money?

How Much Money Do Anesthesiologists Make? According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average yearly salary of anesthesiologists is $261,730. That’s almost five times the average yearly salary for all occupations: $53,490. … BLS says that the average yearly salary of surgeons amounts to $255,110.

What to Look for in a Program

When selecting an MD or a DO, prospective anesthesiologists should only consider accredited programs. Attending an unaccredited program will not qualify you for licensure.

Both MDs and DOs can specialize in anesthesiology, so students should consider whether they want to receive specialized training in whole-person patient care and preventive medicine, as in a DO program, or whether they prefer the conventional Western training of an MD program.

Prospective medical students should also weigh the reputation, location, and cost of potential medical schools, along with the benefits of programs with online components.

Subspecialties within Anesthesia

After anesthesiology residency, you can subspecialize further with any number of fellowships. And good news, each fellowship is only 1 year in length.

Regional Anesthesiology and Acute Pain Medicine

Go into regional anesthesiology and acute pain medicine if you enjoy doing light procedures, like ultrasound-guided regional nerve blocks. You’ll see lots of patients pre-op, doing epidurals before labor, or managing pain in post-operative patients.

When we say regional anesthesia, we refer to blocking pain in a specific area of the body, such as doing a knee block for an ACL repair. This way, the patient doesn’t feel anything from the knee down. Alternatively, median nerve blocks are done in the wrist when operating in certain regions of the hand.

Cardiac Anesthesiology

Cardiac anesthesiology is for those who are hardcore, intense, and somewhat of adrenaline junkies. You’ll be assisting with big cardiothoracic cases, such as open-heart surgery, and may be involved in more sophisticated and nuanced techniques. For example, single lung ventilation is sometimes used to allow the surgeon to operate on the heart without interference from the lung.

This is the second-highest compensated anesthesiology subspecialty, second only to chronic pain.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain anesthesiologists see patients in clinic and prescribe analgesics or administer injections. You can also become a chronic pain physician by pursuing 4 years of PM&R residency followed by a 1-year chronic pain fellowship.

Compensation for chronic pain specialists is quite high. After all, you’re prescribing medications and performing injections and procedures on patients who are highly dependent on your care, and they’ll be coming back for additional treatment.

Neuroanesthesiology

Neuroanesthesiology is for the brainiacs who are into the esoteric and weird stuff. You’ll assist neurosurgeons who need their patients to be awake during the middle of the case to test brain functions. This subspecialty requires a great deal of planning to execute successfully.

Obstetrics Anesthesiology

OB anesthesiology is strongly female-dominated. These are often anesthesiologists who enjoyed obstetrics but didn’t necessarily want to be the person delivering the baby. You’ll be leading mothers through C sections, and it’s ultimately very rewarding, because at the end of each case you’ll generally have a healthy baby and a happy mom.

Pediatric Anesthesiology

Pediatric anesthesiology is not surprisingly best for those anesthesiologists who love working with kids. Oftentimes, they had surgeries themselves when they were younger and were inspired to help kids because they remember how terrifying it was.

There certainly are big cases in pediatrics, but it’s also not uncommon to be assisting with minor procedures. Young children, after all, are generally less tolerant of certain procedures and may require anesthesia for their own comfort and safety.

Remember, kids are not just little adults, and not only do they have unique physiology, but also require special equipment, like smaller endotracheal tubes and Macintosh or Miller blades.

Critical Care

Critical care anesthesiologists care for patients who are admitted to the ICU. This includes patients who have had major surgery or who suffer from severe infections or trauma. As a critical care anesthesiologist, you will not be working in the OR. Instead, you will be managing the ICU.

Another way to become a critical care physician is 3 years of internal medicine residency followed by a 3-year critical care fellowship. This path will take 6 years, whereas going the anesthesia route will be 5 years. Four years for anesthesia residency, and only a 1-year critical care fellowship.

Anesthesiologist FAQ

What GPA do you need to become an anesthesiologist?

You don’t need a specific GPA to become an anesthesiologist, but research shows that students with a 3.5-4.0 GPA do best in medical school.

What is the starting pay for anesthesiologists?

Most beginning anesthesiologists earn between $100,000 and $130,000 per year.

Where do anesthesiologists get paid the most? The states where anesthesiologists are paid the most are South Dakota, Nebraska, California, North Carolina, and Ohio.

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