Earning a master’s degree in nurse anesthesia, one of the highest-paying master’s degrees, can help you upgrade your career from registered nurse to a special type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). A nurse anesthetist career isn’t for everyone, so it’s a good idea to understand this role before you start applying to graduate school. Much of a nurse anesthetist’s work is perioperative, which means that it revolves around the process of performing a surgical procedure. Other nurse anesthetists administer anesthetic drugs for pain relief unrelated to surgery. Part of the role of a nurse anesthetist is to collaborate with other members of a patient’s care team, such as the surgeon performing the procedure and an anesthesiologist.
Meet With Pre-Operative Patients and Select Medications
For nurse anesthetists, clinical interactions with patients often begin as the patient is being prepared for surgery. Part of the process of administering anesthesia is selecting the medication to use and calculating the correct dosage. To do that, nurse anesthetists need to understand the details of the patient’s medical condition and history.
When they meet with patients about to undergo surgery, nurse anesthetists discuss with the patient any medical conditions or allergies they have, as well as any medications they are currently taking, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. This discussion is important because it helps the nurse anesthetist avoid using any anesthetics that are contraindicated, or recommended against using, for the patient. For example, a nurse anesthetist may use this data to weed out any drug options that contain an allergen that could put the patient in danger, is likely to interact with other drugs in the patients’ system or is not an appropriate choice given the patient’s medical conditions.
Whether they practice in a hospital or an ambulatory care center, nurse anesthetists are also responsible for preparing the equipment and monitors used for administering anesthesia and observing the anesthetized patient, O*NET reported.
Administer Anesthesia and Monitor the Patient
Different forms of anesthesia can be delivered in different ways, and patients often receive more than one drug as part of their anesthesia care plan. Many surgeries are performed under general anesthesia. Some of these anesthetics are given through an intravenous (IV) line typically inserted into the patient’s arm or the back of their hand. Other drugs used in anesthesia are breathed in through a mask. A patient under general anesthesia may need to be intubated and put on a ventilator, because some of these drugs make it harder or impossible to breathe spontaneously. Regional anesthesia, which numbs a patient without putting them to sleep, is typically injected into the nerves with a needle.
The nurse anesthetist’s job isn’t over once the patient is numbed or unconscious. Throughout the procedure, the anesthesia provider is responsible for monitoring the patient’s reaction to the drugs, including their vital signs. If something is amiss, the nurse anesthetist must respond quickly to protect the patient from suffering harm. Otherwise, life-threatening complications can develop.
Problems can occur whether the patient is receiving too much anesthesia or too little. Monitoring the patient’s responses is how nurse anesthetists identify one of these problems and begin to correct it.
Check on Post-Operative Patients in Recovery
The patient doesn’t magically wake up from general anesthesia the moment the surgery is complete. Instead, once the anesthesia is no longer actively being administered, the patient will slowly begin to regain consciousness. Usually, the patient is moved to a post-operative unit, where they are cared for primarily by a surgical nurse.
During this post-operative period, the nurse anesthetist still has responsibilities to the patient. In some instances, a nurse anesthetist may need to give the patient other drugs or fluids, O*NET reported. As the patient wakes up, the nurse anesthetist is the one who assesses their post-anesthesia responses to make sure that the patient is recovering well from the medications. In some cases, the nurse anesthetist may choose post-operative medications or treatments to prescribe to the patient.
Once the nurse anesthetist is convinced that the patient is recovering well from the anesthesia, they may discharge the patient from the post-anesthesia care unit.
Provide Pain Relief Services
Although anesthesia is a crucial part of surgeries in modern medical facilities, these drugs aren’t only used in the operating room. Nurse anesthetists also provide pain relief in non-surgical situations. For example, nurse anesthetists work in labor and delivery wards and freestanding birth centers, where they give epidurals to laboring mothers to reduce the pain of contractions. Some nurse anesthetists work in physicians’ and dentists’ offices, where they provide the pain relief required to perform less invasive in-office procedures.
Nurse anesthetists may also work in pain management clinics, helping find solutions for patients with chronic pain due to an injury or illness.
Working With, Under and Independently of Physicians
Depending on their work environment, nurse anesthetists may work directly under anesthesiologists, or they may have more autonomy. Different states have different rules pertaining to physician supervision of nurse anesthetists, and different areas have different needs. Nurse anesthetists working in rural areas where physician anesthesiologists are few and far between tend to have more autonomy. More than 80 percent of the professionals trained to administer anesthesia in rural counties are nurse anesthetists, according to the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists.
There are considerably more nurse anesthetists in clinical practice in America than there are anesthesiologists – 44,900 compared to 33,800 – according to the BLS.