How to Become an Anesthesiologist

Anesthesiologist adjusting anesthesia machine
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Before we discuss how to become an anesthesiologist, it may be helpful to discuss what an anesthesiologist does. Simply put, an anesthesiologist is a physician (M.D., or D.O.) who administers pain-killing gas or injections during operations and surgical procedures. This could include a variety of drugs and levels of anesthesia from a local numbing agent to general anesthesia where the patient is rendered completely unconscious for the duration of the surgery.

Anesthesiologists are an integral part of the surgery team and must work well with surgeons, surgical techs, and nurses.

Some anesthesiologists choose to specialize in pain management, as opposed to traditional surgical anesthesia. Pain management anesthesiologists generally run an office-based practice, administering a variety of injections, pain blocks, and medications to help patients manage chronic or acute pain due to an injury, disease, or other disorder. This could include back pain, neck pain, chronic migraines or headaches, and a variety of other severe pain.

Education and Training

Because an anesthesiologist is a medical doctor, they must complete all of the education and training required of all physicians:

  • Undergraduate Degree - About 4 years of college
  • Medical Degree - About 4 years of graduate school (M.D. or D.O.
  • Residency Training - 4 years of postgraduate training.

Additional fellowship training is optional, such as a pain management fellowship, or additional training in pediatrics, for example.

Additional Requirements

Like all physicians, anesthesiologists must also do the following:

  • Pass the USMLE
  • Obtain a state medical license in the state where you wish to practice.
  • Obtain Board Certification in Anesthesiology (Required by most employers)
  • Maintain a clean record. Any criminal history, substance abuse, or egregious malpractice claims can end your career as a physician, or severely hinder it.

Additionally, if your medical degree is from an international school (not located in the U.S.), you must also pass the ECFMG. This includes a medical proficiency exam, verification of your medical degree, and in some cases, a language test.

Average Income

According to the MGMA salary survey (2016, based on 2015 salary data), the median income for anesthesiologists is $456,681. This is a 2.6 percent increase over the prior year. For those anesthesiologists who specialize in pain management, the average income is $529,347. Pediatric anesthesiologists average $464,412.

As with all physician careers, income for anesthesiologists depends on case volume, overhead expenses, insurance reimbursements in the area, and a variety of other factors.

The average number of annual surgery cases for anesthesiologists is about 915 per year, according to the MGMA.

Before You Become an Anesthesiologist

Anesthesiologists are among the most highly compensated physicians. However, the stress of the role, as well as the schedule can take a toll on one's personal life. High levels of job stress and a very hectic call schedule can often be part of a career as an anesthesiologist. Anesthesiologists are involved with a variety of emergent cases such trauma, transplants, and OB (deliveries). Therefore, a rigorous call rotation may be a way of life.

Anesthesiologists also do not get to have much interaction with patients, at least not those who are awake and alert. Patients are always pretty much "knocked out" when being treated by an anesthesiologist. A brief pre- or post-op visit is often the extent of an anesthesiologist's interpersonal interaction with a patient.

However, if you are a quick thinker, an effective decision-maker, you work well under pressure, and you enjoy the technical and scientific aspects of medicine more so than the interpersonal part of treating patients, then a career in anesthesiology may be for you.

In major surgery, anesthesiologists basically slow down the patient's system to a near-death level, which is why it is a high-risk field - any miscalculation, chemical reaction, or drug interaction can be deadly. Therefore, the stakes are high for anesthesiologists.

Alternative Careers

If you're not sure that becoming an anesthesiologist is the best career choice for you, you may want to explore other physician careers in a different medical specialty. Also, you may want to consider a career as a CRNA, which is an advanced nursing career, and one of the highest paying nursing professions.

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