Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the difference between an anesthesiologist and a nurse anesthetist?

An anesthesiologist is a physician who has completed specialized training in the field of anesthesiology. This requires an undergraduate college degree, four years of medical school, an internship year and at least three additional years of specialized residency training in anesthesiology. Many anesthesiologists then complete an additional year of specialty fellowship training. Board certification requires the anesthesiologist to pass both a standardized national written test and an oral board examination. Recertification is mandated every ten years. Continuing education and simulator training is required for recertification.

Nurse anesthetists must have a RN degree plus at least one year of critical care nursing experience before entering a masters-level 2 year nurse anesthesia training program. Following graduation, the CRNA must pass a national examination.

2. What is an anesthesiologist assistant?

An anesthesiologist assistant must have a bachelor's degree that includes a premedical pre-requisite course of study. They then complete a 2 year masters level training program in anesthesia under the direction of an anesthesiologist. Unlike nurse anesthetists, anesthesiologist assistants always practice under the medical direction of an anesthesiologist.

3. What kind of provider am I likely to encounter if I need anesthesia in New Mexico?

You may be cared for by an anesthesiologist who will personally deliver your anesthesia, a CRNA (nurse anesthetist) who will deliver your care under the direction of an anesthesiologist, or in some cases an nurse a CRNA without any physician oversight (this is more common in small rural hospitals that do simpler cases). If you receive care at one of the UNM hospitals, you may also be cared for by an anesthesiologist assistant and an anesthesiologist.

In many states, it is not legal for a nurse anesthetist to practice without physician supervision. Governor Johnson opted out of this federal guideline during his first term in office in New Mexico. Anesthesiologists either personally administer, or direct/supervise over 90% of the anesthetics delivered in the United States.

4. How safe is anesthesia today?

Anesthesia is extremely safe today, thanks to many years of research by academic anesthesiology departments world-wide. Anesthesiology was one of the first fields in medicine to systematically examine patient safety. Today, death from anesthesia is difficult to accurately estimate because it occurs so rarely, but the numbers usually quoted are 1 in 100,000 to 1 in 250,000 anesthetics. An hour under anesthesia is thus significantly safer than an hour spend driving a car!

Before you are taken to the operating room, all of the equipment is checked systematically--like aircraft. You will be evaluated pre-operatively by an anesthesiologist in most cases (except in some hospitals where only a CRNA is available). Once you arrive in the operating suite, your electrocardiogram, blood oxygen content and respiratory parameters are continuously monitored, and your blood pressure is taken at frequent intervals. The concentration of anesthesia gas you are breathing (if you are having a general anesthetic) is also measured with each breath. Either a CRNA, AA or an anesthesiologist is with you in the operating room every minute that you are under anesthesia. And when the surgery is complete, you are watched carefully in a specialized post-anesthesia care unit, staffed by nurses with special expertise in anesthesia after-effects.

As safe as anesthesia has become, anesthesiologists are working to further lower the risks. The American Society of Anestheiologists has established both the Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation and the Anesthesia Quality Institute as tools to find ways to improve patient care. The NMSA financially supports the ASPF.

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