What Do You Study to Become a Nurse Anesthetist?  

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What exactly does the curriculum of a nurse anesthesia program, which happens to award one of the highest-paying master’s degrees, entail? This graduate degree program equips students who have already earned a registered nurse license to select and administer pain-relieving and numbness-inducing medications called anesthetics to patients undergoing surgery or coping with pain. As you complete your coursework, you’re likely to study advanced topics in general areas of nursing as well as coursework in the foundations and techniques of anesthesia administration as well as taking laboratory courses and clinical residency experiences.

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Advanced Health Assessment, Pharmacology and Physiology

As a graduate-level program, you should expect your master’s in nurse anesthesia program to include advanced coursework in nursing. In fact, all accredited master’s degree programs that prepare students to be advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) must cover what the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education calls the “APRN core” to meet accreditation standards. These courses aren’t as specialized in terms of their relationship to the practice of anesthesia administration, but they provide a foundation of advanced nursing knowledge on which your specialized studies can build.

RELATED: What Is the Difference Between an Anesthesiologist vs Nurse Anesthetist?

Advanced health assessment is one of these APRN core courses. As registered nurses with critical care experience, students in a nurse anesthetist program already know basic skills in assessing a patient. However, this coursework includes advanced techniques in assessing all human systems. Nurse anesthetists must use the information gained through taking the patient’s history and conducting a physical exam to develop a differential diagnosis and determine what medication to use, what dosage to give and how to administer it. Studies in advanced pharmacology give students the knowledge to understand the actions and interactions of different medications. In a mandatory class in advanced physiology and pathophysiology, you will learn more about normal and abnormal physiological functions of organs and body parts.

Some nurse anesthetist programs include specialized pharmacology coursework that revolves around the use of anesthetic drugs and other medications that are common in critical care environments.

Anesthesia Foundations and Techniques

A huge part of your graduate education in nurse anesthesia is learning the theories and techniques of administering the medications that put a patient to sleep for surgery or otherwise induce numbness. While registered nurses often administer medication on doctors’ orders, anesthesia isn’t part of their scope of practice. While coursework in advanced health assessment, pharmacology and physiology build upon what graduate students with a nursing background already know, a lot of the content covered in specialized anesthesia courses is brand new information.

A master’s degree program in nurse anesthesia may start out with coursework that covers the role and scope of nurse anesthetists. A sequence of courses in the principles and practices of nurse anesthesia introduce students to increasingly complex content related to the theories and techniques used in providing patient care pertaining to anesthesia administration.

Coursework in anesthesia and coexisting disease introduces graduate nursing students to the challenge of selecting the right medication and dose to give to patients who present with diseases. After all, many patients have some kind of medical history to consider, and patients who need anesthesia are often, though not always, are undergoing a procedure to address a medical condition. By the time graduate students in a nurse anesthesia program complete their degree requirements, they should know the different types of medications and the equipment and techniques used in administering general, regional and local anesthesia.

Local anesthesia numbs a small area of the body and regional anesthesia numbs a larger area, but neither type of drug induces a loss of consciousness. Unconsciousness is accomplished by putting the patient under general anesthesia.

Lab Courses and Clinical Experiences

Only so much of the practice of anesthesia administration can be learned through lectures and textbooks. Much of a nurse anesthetist’s career training takes place in a hands-on format through laboratory classes or clinical experiences conducted in real healthcare work settings. In their laboratory courses, graduate nursing students might practice the techniques used in airway management and the equipment utilization and specialized skills needed to monitor patients from pre-operative to post-operative stages.

Planned curriculum practice experiences are a required part of accredited master’s degree programs in nursing. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education’s accreditation standards do not officially state a minimum number of hours of clinical practice a nursing student must have. However, the 2016 edition of the National Task Force Criteria for Evaluation of Nurse Practitioner Programs listed the minimum number of clinical hours as 500 and requires these hours to be conducted in a direct patient care capacity.

Clinical hours for a nurse anesthesia program may take place in any of the types of environments where nurse anesthetists work in clinical practice. These settings include hospital operating rooms, labor and delivery wards, outpatient surgery centers, dentists’ and doctors’ offices and pain management clinics, according to the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists.

Nurse anesthesia students may also perform their clinical residencies at military medical centers and veterans’ hospitals. Besides graduate programs that offer military-friendly distance-learning options, there are institutions dedicated to Uniformed Services training.

Additional Resources

What Degree Does a Nurse Anesthetist Need?

What Are Some Good Areas to Study as an Undergrad to Become a Successful Nurse Anesthetist?

What Is the Difference Between a Nurse Anesthetist and a Regular Nurse?

What Is the Role of a Nurse Anesthetist?