What Is the Difference Between Nurse Anesthetist and Anesthesiologist?

Students interested in entering the growing field of health care may find themselves weighing the pros and cons of certain occupations within the medical industry. This is certainly a wise endeavor since there are so many different positions within healthcare that one can assume. Moreover, each of these roles comes with its own issues to consider such as required education, job outlook, and pay, for example.

One of the many sub-fields of the vast healthcare industry is the sub-field of anesthesiology. Anesthesiology is a branch of medicine that deals with the administration of pain-relieving drugs to patients undergoing a surgical operation or procedure. Within the field of anesthesiology are various healthcare occupations, but the two most prominent are nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists.

The terms anesthetist and anesthesiologist are often used interchangeably with many people thinking these two medical professionals are the same and have the same duties and responsibilities. Surprising to many, these are two different professionals. While they both deal with anesthesia and patient care, they’re very different and have different educational requirements. Individuals interested in pursuing careers in anesthesia should know the vital information on both professions.

To get to the crux of the issue, let’s start with two basic questions:

  • What is a nurse anesthetist?
  • What is an anesthesiologist?

What is a Nurse Anesthetist?

A nurse anesthetist is a registered nurse or Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) who has a completed a nurse anesthetist program. These types of nurses work in a variety of medical settings, including hospitals, doctors’ offices, and outpatient care centers. They assist surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other physicians before, during, and after surgical procedures by providing anesthesia to patients. Nurse anesthetists also provide nursing care to patients as well as pain management therapies.

What is an Anesthesiologist?

Like nurse anesthetists, anesthesiologists also provide anesthesia to patients in surgical procedures, but they also have other responsibilities. Many anesthesiologists take on leadership roles as the head of an anesthesia care team in a hospital or outpatient facility. They often oversee the work of nurse anesthetists, anesthesiologist assistants, residents, and other healthcare professionals. They may work closely with a patient’s surgeon before, during, and after surgery to ensure the individual’s overall health and recovery.

Nurse Anesthetist Versus Anesthesiologist : Education and Training

One of the primary differences between a nurse anesthetist and an anesthesiologist lies in the education and training necessary for each profession. In this section, we’ll break down exactly how to become a nurse anesthetist as well as how to become an anesthesiologist.

How to Become a Nurse Anesthetist

An individual interested in becoming a nurse anesthetist must earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in nursing. He or she must also pass the NCLEX-RN exam to obtain licensure as an RN. Prior to enrolling in the nurse anesthetist program, the RN must complete at least one year of clinical experience as a prerequisite to the program. Upon completion of these requirements, the RN must complete the nurse anesthetist training and pass a certification exam to earn the title of Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA). Certification is available through the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA).

The BLS reports that the current entry-level requirement for a nurse anesthetist is a master’s degree. In recent years, though, there has been talk of heightening the educational standards nurse anesthetists are held to. In the year 2007, the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA) recommended that all nurse anesthetists be required to hold a doctoral credential by the year 2025.  Today, many licensed nurse anesthetists have made the decision to return to school to pursue a doctorate in the field in order to secure their current positions for the future. Moreover, prospective nurse anesthetists are increasingly seeking these doctoral programs prior to entry into the field.

To meet the educational requirement recommended by the AANA, aspiring nurse anesthetists may pursue the following doctoral-level credentials:

  • Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice (DNAP)
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP): Nurse Anesthesia

When choosing a school and program, it’s important to consider accreditation as this can affect one’s ability to become professionally licensed in the field. It’s best to choose an institution and program accredited by the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA). According to the COA, there are currently 128 such programs in the United States. This includes 112 programs available via distance education.

Doctorate in Nursing Anesthesia: Curriculum and Courses

Whether online or in-person, doctorate programs in nursing anesthesia require high-level coursework in the broader field of healthcare as well as in the specific discipline of anesthesiology. The number of credit hours required and the length of study will depend on the student’s prior academic background. Some doctoral programs in nursing anesthesia require applicants to hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) while others admit only those who have already completed their master’s degree.

To earn a doctorate in the field of nursing anesthesiology, students will be required to complete coursework as well as a predetermined number of clinical hours. For the sake of reference, we’ve listed some sample course titles affiliated with current doctoral programs in the field.

Sample Courses:

  • Professional Issues in Nurse Anesthesia
  • Principles of Nurse Anesthesia Across the Lifespan
  • Anesthesia and Healthcare Policy
  • Human Factors and Patient Safety in Healthcare
  • Evaluation and Decision Making for Health Services Programs
  • Advanced Pharmacology for Nursing Anesthesia
  • Techniques and Technologies in Nursing Anesthesia

Clinical Component

All doctoral-level programs for nurse anesthetists require a large clinical component. This requirement ensures that graduates of these programs have the hands-on experience required to be successful and proficient in the field. It is not uncommon for programs to require 2,000 to 3,000 hours of clinical experience prior to graduation. It is important to note that even online doctorate in nursing anesthesiology programs have on-site clinical requirements.

How to Become an Anesthesiologist

Like the pursuit of becoming a nurse anesthetist, becoming an anesthesiologist is also a large commitment that requires several years of education. Unlike anesthetists, which are nurses, anesthesiologists are medical doctors. To enter an anesthesiologist program, the candidate must have both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Ultimately, anesthesiologists must earn a medical degree, but their chosen path can lead to either a medical doctor (M.D.) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.) credential.

The medical student must then pass both a state and national licensing exam to earn a medical degree. Additionally, the aspiring anesthesiologist must complete a residency, which takes at least one year to complete. While completing the residency, the anesthesiologist may focus on a specific specialty, such as obstetrics, pediatrics, critical care, or cardiac. When all the training is completed, the anesthesiologist may obtain certification through the American Board of Anesthesiology. According to the American Society of Anesthesiologists, it generally takes between 12 and 14 years to complete all of the training and educational requirements necessary to become an anesthesiologist.

Skills and Qualities Required of Nurse Anesthetists and Anesthesiologists

While many of the skills and qualities necessary for the two positions overlap, there are some unique traits required for both nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists.

Traits of Successful Nurse Anesthetists

There are numerous distinct qualities that make a successful nurse anesthetist. Here are a few:

Self-Driven But Able to Follow Directions

Nurse anesthetists are in the unique position of being at the top of their professional field while still playing a somewhat subservient role. While some CRNAs practice independently, many also work under the direct supervision of a licensed anesthesiologist. Depending on their specific roles as well as the preferences of their lead anesthesiologist, these advanced practice registered nurses must be able to perform their duties without too much oversight while also being willing to provide a detailed report of their work to a superior. While it may sound fairly straightforward, this can actually be a delicate line to toe.

Detail-Oriented

In addition to providing detailed accounts of their work to their lead anesthesiologists, nurse anesthetists must pay close attention to detail when administering anesthesia. A wrong move with the needle or a miscalculation with dosage could have dire consequences for their patients, after all. This is why the best nurse anesthetists are extremely serious about their work and take care to maximize focus during their work hours.

Dependable

Nurse anesthetists are in such high demand because of the growing number of people in need of medical procedures such as surgical operations that require anesthesia. When a nurse anesthetist is late to work or doesn’t show up, these procedures sometimes have to be delayed or canceled, causing problems for both patients and the medical facilities who provide the operations. Thus, it’s imperative that nurse anesthetists be reliable and keep a regular work schedule.

Qualities of Successful Anesthesiologists

Successful anesthesiologists come with various strengths and weaknesses, but some qualities are crucial. Here are a few of those vital characteristics:

Bedside Manner

As the head of an anesthesia care team, it’s usually up to the anesthesiologist to speak to patients prior to a procedure. He or she is often tasked with educating the patient regarding what to expect when the anesthesia is administered and the operation or medical procedure has begun. Effective anesthesiologists are able to put patients’ fears and concerns at rest prior to undergoing anesthesia; this requires a calm demeanor and the excellent bedside manner characteristic of all good doctors.

Leadership Skills

While administering anesthesia prior to a surgical operation may be the first task associated with anesthesiologists, their duties are actually two-fold. In addition to providing patient care, anesthesiologists often take on leadership roles within larger anesthesia care teams. In these roles, anesthesiologists may be required to train nurse anesthetists or anesthesiologist assistants on new procedures, conduct job performance reviews, and give constructive feedback to other members of the care team.

Good Under Pressure

Like surgeons, anesthesiologists must be able to perform well under pressure. That’s because there are numerous things that can go wrong during a procedure or operation that requires anesthesia. When a problem does arise, anesthesiologists must be able to remain calm and focused despite the stress. With pressure mounting, they must be able to monitor the slightest changes in a patient’s vital signs and alter the dose of anesthesia if necessary. Doing so requires incredible skill and clarity of mind.

Career Outlook & Wage Potential for Nurse Anesthetists vs. Anesthesiologists

If you’re convinced you want to work in anesthesia, but you’re on the fence about whether to become a nurse anesthetist or anesthesiologist, then information regarding job prospects and pay may help you make your decision.

Job Prospects for Nurse Anesthetists and Anesthesiologists

We’d like to say that both nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists are very much in demand, but this simply isn’t the case. Unfortunately, only nurse anesthetists will see an increase in job opportunities over the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Between the years 2019 and 2029, employment prospects for qualified nurse anesthetists will expand by 14 percent. This growth will result in more than 6,000 new jobs for nurses trained in the proper administration of anesthesia. Why are jobs in this particular field growing? As the demand for more and better healthcare services increases, so too does the need for medical professionals with skills in the operating room.

Interestingly, this demand does not transfer to the role of an anesthesiologist, however. The BLS reports that over this same timeframe (i.e., 2019-2029), job prospects for these types of physicians will remain stagnant with any new openings contributing to negligible overall growth for the specialty. According to the BLS, this sluggish market for anesthesiologists can be attributed to advancements in medical technology that make tasks more streamlined, enabling anesthesiologists to care for more patients in less time. It could also be explained by the increased demand for nurse anesthetists who can perform many of the same tasks at a lesser cost to the hospitals they work for.

Salaries and Wages for Nurse Anesthetists and Anesthesiologists

Despite the fact that nurse anesthetists are in higher demand than anesthesiologists, anesthesiologists make significantly more than nurse anesthetists. Still, both professions are highly lucrative. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nurse anesthetists made approximately $183,500 on average in May 2020. Anesthesiologists, on the other hand, made over $271,000 on average that same year. That’s a difference of roughly $87,500 annually. It’s also important to note that anesthesiologists are the highest-paid type of medical doctors in the United States.

Choosing a career as a medical professional can be demanding, challenging, and yet very rewarding. Whether they choose to pursue employment as nurse anesthetists or anesthesiologists, those who choose to be part of a surgical team often find their careers entail some very exciting and lucrative work.

Frequently-Asked Questions About Nurse Anesthetists vs. Anesthesiologists

Q: Who makes more—a nurse anesthetist or an anesthesiologist?

A: Anesthesiologists make significantly more than nurse anesthetists, but both professions are highly lucrative.

Q: Will I have better job prospects as a nurse anesthetist or anesthesiologist?

A: Right now, nurse anesthetists have better job prospects since the occupation is currently growing much faster than average. Growth projections for anesthesiologists over the next decade are negligible.

Q: Are nurse anesthetists medical doctors?

A: No. Despite the fact that nurse anesthetists increasingly need a doctoral credential for employment, they are not considered medical doctors. Instead, they are classified as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).

Q: Does it take longer to become an anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist?

A: Both career paths require a significant investment of study time, but it does take several years longer to become an anesthesiologist.

Q: Do nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists perform the same duties?

A: Yes and no. While both types of healthcare professionals administer anesthesia, anesthesiologists have more management and supervisory responsibilities in addition to patient care.

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Bambi Majumdar
Author

Melissa Anderson
Expert

Julie McCaulley
Editor-in-Chief