Anesthesiologists treat and prevent pain and monitor the vital functions of patients during surgical procedures. They do not just work in operating rooms, however. They can also practice in pain clinics, intensive care units, or labor and delivery units. Becoming an anesthesiologist requires completion of undergraduate prerequisite courses, medical school, and a residency, as well as post-residency (fellowship) training if one wants to further specialize (for example, in pediatric anesthesiology).
There is no official degree required for admission to medical school, and many baccalaureate programs can adequately prepare students for this endeavor. Some schools prefer graduates with a 4-year degree in natural sciences, which should include classes in physics, organic and inorganic chemistry, anatomy, and biology.
Prior to specializing in anesthesiology, all perspective anesthesiologists must graduate from a 4-year Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) program at an accredited medical school. These extremely competitive programs are renowned for their academically demanding and time-consuming nature.
The first two years of medical school build on students' undergraduate knowledge of the natural sciences and add more specialized sciences to the mix. Med students take classes in biochemistry, microbiology, neuroscience, pharmacology, pathology, immunology, and behavioral science. During these first two years, students also have their first patient contact as they learn to conduct examinations and interviews.
The second half of medical school is primarily dedicated to clinical study. Students take part in 4-12 week clinical rotations that serve as their on-the-job introduction to various branches of medicine, such as pediatrics, geriatrics, oncology and anesthesiology. Known as interns, these students operate under the supervision of attending physicians or residents. They interact with patients, performing preliminary diagnoses, and then developing treatment plans and presenting them to their supervisors.
Residency and Fellowship
Anesthesiologists in the U.S. must undergo a 4-year resident training program after graduating from medical school. The first year may be either a medical or surgical internship, followed by three years of intense training in anesthesiology. Elevated to the status of residents, these future anesthesiologists are one rung higher than interns but still only practice medicine under supervision. Expectations for performance are considerably increased for residents, who diagnose and treat patients, participate in team meetings, known as rounds, and present cases and research to professors and supervising physicians.
Specialized elements of anesthesiology that are taught and practiced during a residency might include:
- Chronic and acute pain management
- Pre-operative patient evaluation
- Post-operative pain evaluation and control
- Intensive care pain management
- Pre-existing disease factors in surgical care
At this stage in their training, many anesthesiologists go on to complete an additional year of study in a subspecialty. This training, called a fellowship, is within a subset of anesthesiology that may be of particular interest, such as pediatric, obstetric, cardiac, neurologic or critical care. A particularly ambitious anesthesiologist might undertake additional subsequent fellowships to combine subspecialties.
Licensure and Certification
The practice of medicine is highly regulated, and anesthesiology is no exception. Three levels of credentialing exist for anesthesiologists. Licensure is a state-based credential that includes passage of the U.S. Medical and Licensing Examination (USMLE) . It can be obtained upon graduation from an accredited medical school and is required to practice medicine in the U.S. Individual specialties in medicine require further certification at the culmination of the residency program. The American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA) administers the written and oral examination for the certified anesthesiologist specialty. Fellows also can achieve an additional ABA-board certification in the anesthesiology subspecialties of critical care, pain medicine, and hospice and palliative medicine.
As the baby boomer population ages, the health care industry is expected to continue surging in growth, creating better-than-average job opportunities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job prospects for anesthesiologists were expected to increase 21% between 2014 and 2024. The mean annual salary for anesthesiologists was $258,100 as of May 2015, based on BLS figures.