A master’s in nurse anesthesia, one of the highest-paying master’s degrees, is the path to a career as a nurse anesthetist. Nurse anesthetists are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) in the specialty of anesthesiology. There are a number of differences between nurse anesthetists and registered nurses (RNs) found in more traditional nursing roles. Some factors that distinguish nurse anesthetists from other nurses include the level of clinical practice the nurse undertakes, the required education and salary potential.
Level of Practice
The “advanced practice” part of the APRN qualification is important. Advanced practice nurses have a greater scope of job duties than registered nurses. They have more authority and autonomy, as well. Registered nurses are part of the care team that provides care to patients – collaborating with and working under the guidance of physicians – but advanced practice nurses may work independently. They can, for example, work independently, order medical tests, diagnose disorders and prescribe medications, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. However, the precise scope of an advanced practice registered nurse varies from state to state.
Other types of advanced practice nurses include nurse practitioners, who can specialize in virtually any area of healthcare, and nurse midwives. Nurse practitioners are the most visible APRNs, with more than four times – and nearly five times – as many nurse practitioners as nurse anesthetists.
Typically, the drugs nurse anesthetists order and administer are pain-relieving and unconsciousness-inducing medications that fit under the umbrella of anesthesia. These medications are used to keep patients comfortable during surgery and other medical procedures that could cause pain. The work of a nurse anesthetist begins before anesthesia is administered, when determining the correct drug and dosage to give, and continues throughout the administration and during post-operative recovery.
Like doctors, nurses work in different areas of specialty. Nurse anesthesiology is a particularly specialized area of practice that focuses on pain relief.
Level of Education Required
One of the biggest differences between nurse anesthetists and registered nurses is the level of education needed for the career. You can generally become a registered nurse with only an undergraduate education, while nurse anesthetists and other advanced practice nurses need a graduate education.
Aspiring RNs can choose from any of three paths to prepare for their career. While the four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree is a popular option, you can also earn an associate’s degree in nursing or a diploma in nursing, according to the BLS.
Nurse anesthetists and other APRNs, on the other hand, must have at least a master’s degree. Some nurse anesthetists have a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in nurse anesthesia or a Doctorate of Nursing Anesthesia Practice (DNAP) degree.
A Master of Science in Nurse Anesthesia program consists of both general advanced nursing topics and specialized topics in the administration of anesthesia. Coursework that applies to other areas of advanced practice nursing includes advanced clinical assessment, advanced physiology and pathophysiology, advanced pharmacology, evidence-based nursing practice and genetics and genomics in advanced practice nursing. Specialized coursework may include anesthesia and coexisting disease, pharmacology for anesthesia and critical care, theories and techniques of regional anesthesia administration, the professional role of the nurse anesthetist and the principles and practices of nurse anesthesia.
Laboratory coursework in the technology, procedures and specialized skills involved in managing pre-operative, inter-operative and post-operative patients, as well as airway management in the administration of anesthesia, equips students with practical skills. Students of a master’s degree program in nurse anesthesia gain hands-on experience through nurse anesthesia residencies.
A master’s degree is the most popular level of education for nurse anesthetists, with 77 percent of the occupation reporting this degree as their highest level of formal education, according to O*NET.
Given the increase in the scope of their job duties, as well as the additional education requirements, it’s no surprise that advanced practice nurses earn more than registered nurses. While the median wage for RNs is $73,300, the median wage for all APRNs is $115,800, according to the BLS.
Even among advanced practice nurses, nurse anesthetists are high earners. In fact, nurse anesthetists are the highest-earning APRNs by a long shot, with a median wage of $174,790, compared to $109,820 for nurse practitioners.
APRNs don’t just earn more than RNs – they also have better career opportunities. The BLS expects jobs for nurse anesthetists to grow by 14 percent and nurse practitioners to grow by 52 percent over a decade, compared to the 7 percent job growth rate expected for registered nurses.