Anesthesia is the medicine used to relieve pain, numb a part of the body or put a patient to sleep so that health care professionals can perform medical procedures. Administering anesthesia is a challenging job that requires precision. Giving a patient too little anesthesia can result in the patient feeling extreme pain or waking up during a surgery, while giving too much of these medications could potentially be fatal.
Because it is so important to administer just the right amount of anesthesia, the health care professionals who do this work need advanced education and training. Both nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists administer anesthesia, but they follow different education and career paths.
Nursing vs. Medical Field
The biggest difference between nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists is simply that of a nursing background compared to a physician’s educational background. The full title for nurse anesthetists is Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA). CNRAs are a type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). Anesthesiologists are doctors who complete medical school, clinical rotations, internship and a residency.
The job duties of anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists overlap a great deal, as these highly trained health care professionals provide many of the same services. Both work directly with surgeons and patients, administering anesthesia, monitoring the patient while under anesthesia and adjusting the medication as necessary. Much of the difference between nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists is the difference in philosophy between the fields of nursing and medicine.
Generally speaking, the medical model of treating patients is more focused on diagnosing and treating diseases, while the nursing model puts more emphasis on patient care. Physicians are usually the leaders and primary decision-makers of health care teams and are the most accountable for patient outcomes, but nurses typically have more direct contact with the patient. However, these differences may be less pronounced when it comes to nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists compared to other roles in nursing and medicine.
Nurses have been administering anesthesia for more than 150 years, with the CRNA credential first appearing in 1956, according to the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists.
Education and Training
A big difference between nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists is how they prepare for their roles. Nurse anesthetists begin their careers as registered nurses (RNs), typically by earning an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. They must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) and attain their RN license. Typically, a registered nurse needs to spend at least one year working full-time in the field of nursing before beginning an advanced nursing education program. Currently, most APRN, including nurse anesthetists, complete a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree program, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, that may change very soon. By the year 2025, new nurse anesthetists will be required to hold a doctoral degree, according to U.S. News & World Report, and other APRNs will be “strongly encouraged” to get one, as well.
MSN and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree programs for nurse anesthetists include introductory, intermediate and advanced coursework in the principles of anesthesia as well as the physics and chemistry of how anesthesia works and how it is given. To become a CNRA, you will need to administer anesthesia in a clinical setting, under the supervision of anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists, a minimum of 600 times and will gain thousands of hours of hands-on clinical experience.
Anesthesiologists are specialized physicians, and as such, they need a doctor’s education. This begins with a bachelor’s degree, often in a major such as biology, chemistry or pre-medical studies. Students must be accepted into medical school, which is highly competitive. Once aspiring doctors get into medical school, they must complete two years of classroom and laboratory studies and an additional two years of clinical rotations in a number of specialties in order to attain their Doctor of Medicine (MD) or the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree, according to the BLS.
After finishing medical school, prospective anesthesiologists must complete a yearlong internship in general medical, surgical or pediatric training and three years of residency experience in clinical anesthesiology, the American Society of Anesthesiology reported. Though not required, a yearlong fellowship is valuable if you wish to work in a subspecialty of anesthesiology such as critical care medicine, cardiac anesthesiology, neuro-anesthesiology, obstetric anesthesiology, pediatric anesthesiology or pain management. Once your residency is complete, you will probably want to join the nearly 75 percent of anesthesiologists who attain certification from the American Board of Anesthesiology.
All told, your education after high school will take at least seven years if you become a CNRA, and at least 12 years if you become an anesthesiologist.
Earning Potential and Cost of Education
Other than the philosophical differences between nursing and medical models, why would someone choose to spend 12 years studying to become an anesthesiologist rather than becoming a nurse anesthetist in seven years? For one thing, there is a considerable difference in earning potential. Both of these careers offer lucrative salaries, due to the high level of responsibility and the intense educational demands.
Nurse anesthetists are among the most highly paid nurses out there, with a median wage of $165,120. Anesthesiologists are also the top earners among doctors – but their median salary is $453,687 per year, the BLS reported.
However, there’s more to consider than just annual salaries. How much income is a prospective anesthesiologist missing out on during those five extra years of school? How much does it cost to train for a career as a nurse anesthetist or an anesthesiologist? Ultimately, when choosing between a nurse anesthetist and an anesthesiologist career, you need to look at all of the factors, including the education and training needed for these careers as well as earning potential.
The tuition for a DNP program typically costs tens of thousands of dollars – while the price tag for medical school may be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.