If you think anesthesia is the career for you, you can choose to be a doctor, a nurse or an anesthesiologist assistant. Each career choice offers advantages that will benefit your individual talents and desires. Although anesthetists and anesthesiologists perform many of the same functions, there are differences in education, salary and supervisory responsibilities. Anesthesiologists are physicians, while anesthetists are either certified registered nurse anesthetists – also called CRNAs – or anesthesiologist assistants, who are called AAs.
Anesthesiologists are medical doctors. They must complete four years of undergraduate training, often in science. After college, they attend four years of medical school and then spend three to eight years in a residency program. Some also go on to fellowships -– specialty training programs that can last three years or more. Medical school is highly competitive, and students spend many hours studying subjects such as anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, medical ethics and medical law. Medical education is very expensive and at least 85 percent of medical graduates have student debts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Anesthesiologists must be licensed, and most are board-certified. They must complete continuing education to maintain their licenses and must recertify periodically.
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists
CRNAs are one of several types of advanced practice registered nurses who are authorized to provide care at a level similar to that of a physician. For example, CRNAs may diagnose illness, order lab and other diagnostic tests and prescribe medications. Although CRNAs must have a supervising physician, they do not need to be anesthesiologists. An RN must have a bachelor’s degree in nursing, which usually takes four years of full-time study, and at least one year of acute care experience to enter a CRNA program of two to three years. CRNAs must have a minimum of a master’s degree and may have a doctorate. CRNAs are licensed and certified; they need continuing education credits to apply for relicensure and certification and must recertify every two years.
Anesthesiologist assistants are professionals with a premedical background who work under the direct supervision of an anesthesiologist. Sometimes called physician extenders, they practice only in the field of anesthesia. Nurses, physician assistants, respiratory therapists or other health-care professionals with a bachelor's degree are eligible to enter AA programs accredited by the Commission for the Accreditation of Allied Health Educational Programs. The AA receives a master's degree after a 24 to 28 month course of study. After graduation, the AA must be certified by passing a national examination. AAs must complete CE training to recertify every two years. AAs are also required to take the Continuing Demonstration of Qualification Exam every six years.
As physicians, anesthesiologists earn the highest salaries of the group. The average annual salary for anesthesiologists in 2011 was $234,950, according to the BLS. The BLS groups CRNAs with all other registered nurses and does not track AAs. Becker’s Hospital Review, however, reports that the average annual salary of a CRNA in 2011 was almost $169,000. Although the American Academy of Anesthesiologist Assistants does not provide a dollar amount, it states that CRNAs and AAs with equivalent qualifications and experience who are employed in the same hospital department normally receive identical salaries.
2016 Salary Information for Physicians and Surgeons
Physicians and surgeons earned a median annual salary of $204,950 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, physicians and surgeons earned a 25th percentile salary of $131,980, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $261,170, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 713,800 people were employed in the U.S. as physicians and surgeons.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Physicians and Surgeons
- Minority Nurse.com: From RN to CRNA
- American Academy of Anesthesiologist Assistants Facts about AAs
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2011 29-1061 Anesthesiologists
- Becker’s Hospital Review: Average CRNA Salary in 2011 Nears $169k
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Physicians and Surgeons
- Career Trend: Physicians and Surgeons
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.