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Anesthesiologist: Education Requirements and Career Information

Anesthesiology's focus is pain and its control, both within and outside the operating room. Physicians who are trained in this specialty collaborate with surgical teams on safe and effective sedation methods, evaluate and monitor vital functions during procedures and manage post-surgical pain relief. Anesthesiologists also might practice independently in pain clinics, intensive care units or labor and delivery units.

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Education Requirements for Anesthesiologists

The road to becoming a board-certified anesthesiologist is long, requiring a minimum of 12 years of postsecondary education. Aspiring anesthesiologists must first become fully qualified physicians and then complete rigorous residency requirements. Subspecialties of study, such as pediatric anesthesia, may add even more years of supervised study before a graduate can practice independently.

Bachelor of Science in Pre-Medical Study

While there is no official pre-medical degree required for medical school, many baccalaureate degree programs are geared toward preparing graduates for medical school. Whether it carries the pre-medical label or not, a 4-year degree, preferably in natural sciences, is required to gain admission to an accredited medical school. These undergraduate programs should be heavily weighted in physics, organic and inorganic chemistry, anatomy and biology.

Doctor of Medicine

Prior to specializing in anesthesiology, all students must graduate from a 4-year Doctor of Medicine (MD) program at one of the 126 accredited medical schools in the U.S. 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- to 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 in Anesthesiology

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 include the following:

  • 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

Fellowship in Anesthesiology

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 for Anesthesiologists

The practice of medicine is highly regulated, and anesthesiology is no exception. Three levels of credentialing exist for the anesthesiologist. 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 this specialty, and designees may use the title Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Fellows also can achieve an additional ABA-board certification in the anesthesiology subspecialties of critical care, pain medicine, and hospice and palliative medicine.

Career Information for Anesthesiologists

As the baby boomer population ages, the health care industry was 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 physicians and surgeons were expected to increase 18% between 2012 and 2020 (www.bls.gov). The outlook was even better for physicians who treat traditionally underserved populations in low-income or rural areas. The mean annual salary for anesthesiologists was $235,070 in May 2013, based on BLS figures.

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