If you’ve ever undergone major surgery, you’re probably familiar with the patient experience. A doctor discusses your procedure in advance, administers some anesthesia, you peacefully fall asleep, and when you wake up your surgery is complete. You may be surprised to learn that your surgeon does not administer your anesthesia, however. Instead, an anesthesiologist supports your surgeon throughout the surgical process.

To help explain what does an anesthesiologist does, read on to learn more about this career path and what you can expect if you decide to become an anesthesiologist after medical school.

What is Anesthesiology?

Anesthesiology is the medical practice of giving controlled drugs to patients for pain management during surgery or other critical procedures, such as childbirth. Anesthesiology involves understanding how much medication is necessary to keep a patient sedated during the entire procedure while still allowing the patient to wake up after the procedure is over. Doctors who practice anesthesiology are referred to as anesthesiologists, and these doctors must become fully licensed physicians so they are properly educated on how different factors, such as gender, weight, or other physical characteristics, might affect the administration of different types of anesthesia.

What does general anesthesia mean?

If a patient receives general anesthesia, he or she will be put in a sleep-like state of unconsciousness through a combination of gases and intravenous (injected) medications. This is generally the most common type of anesthesia used in major surgeries, and the anesthesiologist administering it must stay with the patient throughout the procedure. The patient will feel like they have “fallen asleep” before the surgery begins and will “wake up” in the recovery room after surgery, but will have no memory of the surgery itself.

What does sedation mean?

While patients under general anesthesia are fully unconscious, patients under sedation are in a drowsy, relaxed, semi-conscious state. Since a patient’s senses are dulled, reactions to and feelings of pain are greatly reduced. Sedation is commonly used in dentistry and some minor surgeries.

What does regional anesthesia mean?

Regional anesthesia is the administration of anesthesia to block pain in a large area of the body, such as in a leg or from the waist down. When receiving regional anesthesia, the patient is still fully awake, but he or she will not feel any pain in the area where the anesthesia is administered. Typically, this is given through an injection directly into the nerves. Common uses for regional anesthesia include outpatient medical procedures, such as a biopsy, epidurals during childbirth, or injections for back pain management.

What does an Anesthesiologist do?

Anesthesiologists do much more than administer anesthesia. They frequently attend and assist in surgeries, consult with other doctors for proper care, and even meet with patients before and after medical procedures that require an anesthetic. The career of an anesthesiologist is quite varied, so the physician must be prepared for a variety of tasks and treatments.

Common tasks and treatments

Although an anesthesiologist is fully qualified to administer anesthesia, he or she will more likely oversee an entire anesthesiology team with nurses and assistants that perform the actual administration. Anesthesiologists must gather a full patient history before any procedure and carefully monitor a patient’s vital signs before, during, and after a procedure to watch for any negative reactions.

If issues do occur during a surgery or procedure, an anesthesiologist must be fully prepared to administer life-saving treatment, such as airway management or administering stimulants. Since many medical professionals may be involved in the surgery, the anesthesiologist must also be well-versed in consulting with other physicians and making cooperative decisions that are in the best interests of the patient.

Anesthesiology Specializations

For some anesthesiologists, certain aspects of this medical field are more interesting than others. If a doctor has an affinity for working with children, for example, she may decide to specialize in pediatric anesthesiology. According to The American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), there are 6 officially recognized specializations within the field of anesthesiology:

Critical Care Medicine – Anesthesiologists in this specialty work primarily in critical care units within a hospital. They will treat trauma victims or other patients with critical illnesses or injuries.
Hospice and Palliative Medicine – These specialists work to relieve the pain associated with cancer and other life-altering illnesses.
Neurocritical Care – This specialty aims to help patients with neurological disorders, including brain injuries and tumors, Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, or strokes.
Pain Medicine – Patients dealing with long-term illnesses such as Fibromyalgia may need the expertise of an anesthesiologist specializing in pain medicine.
Pediatric Anesthesiology – Since age and weight are two of many factors that affect the proper administration of anesthesia, pediatric anesthesiologists study the specifics of delivering pain control to infants and children.
Sleep Medicine – These anesthesiologists are specially trained in managing conditions that affect sleep cycles.

What’s It Like to Become an Anesthesiologist?

To study anesthesiology, doctors must start as fully trained physicians so they understand the inner workings of the human body and what can affect it. Students can then choose a residency training pathway to explore specialization areas, but the training program must be approved by the ABA.

Education and Qualifications

The education program begins with a 4-year undergraduate program followed by 4 years of medical school. After graduating from medical school, anesthesiologists will complete a 4-year residency consisting of 12 months of general clinical experience followed by 36 months of clinical anesthesia training. Alternately, some physicians may choose to complete a 5-year residency that includes an extra year of research in their chosen specialization.

As they work through residency, anesthesiologists can complete a series of staged exams to work towards board certification. After passing the Basic, Advanced, and Applied staged exams, they become board-certified anesthesiologists and can work in the setting of their choosing.

Career Outlook

After becoming board-certified, anesthesiologists can expect a long and stable career. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the anesthesiologist job market is expected to grow by more than 15% through 2026. Since anesthesiologists are in demand in a variety of surgical fields, prospective medical students can expect consistent job opportunities in anesthesiology for the foreseeable future.

Doctors who are willing to relocate may find greater job opportunities in different parts of the country. Texas, California, and Florida have the highest number of anesthesiology jobs per state, with 4,440 jobs, 3,080 jobs, and 1,570 jobs respectively. By comparison, Rhode Island has only 60 positions across the entire state, while Mississippi follows closely behind with only 80 positions.

Salary Expectations

Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the annual mean wage for anesthesiologists is $261,730 per year, which is higher than the mean wage of $208,000 for general physicians and surgeons. Other data aggregates project higher salaries for anesthesiologists, however. ZipRecruiter lists the average anesthesiologist salary as $347,662 per year, while the 2018 Medscape Anesthesiologist Compensation Report indicated an average annual salary for anesthesiology physicians of $386,000 including bonuses and profit-sharing, and the report further indicated that self-employed anesthesiologists earned significantly more than their corporate counterparts – bringing in $433,000 per year.

As with job opportunities, salaries can vary from state to state and across different metropolitan areas. Anesthesiologists working in the Cleveland, OH area make an average of $275,940 per year, while those in Reno, NV make considerably less with an average salary of $199,680. The chosen industry for doctors in this field can also affect salary expectations. Physicians working in regular office settings or outpatient care centers command over $270,000 per year, while anesthesiologists working in university research settings should expect to make less than half; their annual salary averages in at only $125,300 per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Our Anesthesiology Alumni

If a career in anesthesiology seems intriguing, you can learn more about this specialty from others who are already practicing in the field. AUA has several alumni who happily share their experiences, both in medical school at AUA and in their residency programs after graduation. Dr. Saurabh Dang is currently an Interventional Pain Physician and Anesthesiologist at Garden State Pain Control Center, and Dr. Sreekanth Cheruku is an Anesthesiologist and Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center. You can hear more from these distinguished professionals on our resident spotlight page.

Looking to start a career in Anesthesiology? The American University of Antigua College of Medicine (AUA) is a fully accredited Caribbean medical school dedicated to providing an academic experience of the highest quality. Learn more about our MD program here.