It’s a common question: What’s the difference between an anesthetist and an anesthesiologist? In this article, we breakdown how these two professions differ, from educational requirements and salary considerations to what personalities and characteristics are best suited for each role.
Author: Tiffany Spek
Imagine waking up in the morning, excited to get ready for your workday, knowing you — and your career choice — are appreciated, respected, and well-compensated.
You work autonomously, but at the same time, collaboratively, utilizing your ability to apply cutting-edge critical thinking while at the same time providing complex hands-on skills. You are logical while being empathetic, technically focused while being kind and tender, intellectual while remaining human.
Providing complex, compassionate care to people of all ages, you take away pain, soothe fears, and answer questions, helping usher in new life at times and at other times easing the transition out of this life into the afterlife.
Does this sound intriguing? If you answered yes to that question, a career as an anesthesiologist or a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) may be for you!
Differentiating Between an Anesthetist and an Anesthesiologist
What is an anesthetist? Is it the same as an anesthesiologist? Many people are confused about the differences between the nurse anesthetist and the anesthesiologist.
In this article, we break down the differences between these two career types.
The Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
First and foremost, an anesthetist is a nurse who has earned an advanced practice nursing degree (APRN) specializing in the provision of anesthesia services to patients across the lifespan and across a wide variety of healthcare specialties.
Individuals interested in pursuing a career as a CRNA must obtain a bachelor’s degree, typically in nursing science, but individuals who hold bachelor’s degrees in other health-related fields may also apply to a nursing-anesthesia or nurse anesthetist program. Applicants must also hold a license as a Registered Nurse (RN) in order to apply.
Education and Experiences Required
However, don’t go rushing off to fill out your application to nurse anesthetist school just yet. Most, if not all, CRNA programs require at least two years of work experience as an RN and recent nursing experience (typically at least 1 year) working in a critical care area, such as the intensive care unit, operating room, or the emergency department.
Some CRNA programs also require proof that you have spent a predetermined period shadowing an already practicing CRNA as part of the application process. Once accepted into CRNA school, you will be required to complete an intense year-round, three-year master’s level program of didactic study and clinical experiences.
The academic study typically takes a generalist approach, providing specific education about anesthesia across the generality of patient populations and areas of practice. During your clinical experiences, you will begin the actual hands-on practice of caring for patients, providing all aspects of anesthesia services that include the evaluation of patients, the actual provision of anesthesia during surgeries or procedures, airway management (oftentimes during “Code Blue” events), and pain control, all under the supervision of CRNAs–and anesthesiologists.
Once you have successfully completed your three-year journey through CRNA school, you must pass a nationally governed, state-administered certification and licensure examination prior to beginning your career as a CRNA.
Upcoming New Educational Requirements
Beginning in 2025, all CRNAs graduating from nurse anesthetist programs will be required to have completed a doctoral-level CRNA program prior to being allowed to take the licensing examinations.
The Council on Accreditation (COA) of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs, the credentialing body for CRNA programs, has determined that all CRNA programs must transition to a PhD level of study—either a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or a Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice (DNAP)—by 2022.
But don’t worry, if you are already practicing as a CRNA or are currently enrolled in a CRNA program; you will be allowed to continue practicing with your master’s level CRNA education.
Next up, the anesthesiologist. The more familiar of the anesthesia providers, the anesthesiologist is a physician—a doctor—who has completed medical school (either a Doctor of Medicine [MD] program or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine [DO] program) and chosen to specialize in the area of anesthesiology.
Education and Experiences Required
Individuals choosing to pursue a career as an anesthesiologist must first complete a bachelor’s degree—typically in a pre-med science track—before applying to medical school. Once accepted into medical school, they will spend the next four years completing a general medical education at the completion of which they will be required to pass the medical boards.
With eight years of education completed, the next step is to be accepted into another four years of training, this time in an internship and residency program where training will begin to specialize in anesthesiology.
The first year, typically referred to as an internship, is spent receiving an education in general anesthesia, and is primarily didactic, or academic. The following three years, referred to as the residency, continues the general anesthesia education, with the addition of hundreds of hours of hands-on clinical training providing anesthesia services under the supervision of an already practicing anesthesiologist.
During this time, trainees will work alongside both CRNAs and CRNA students as they gain experience in providing anesthesia care. Once the residency program is completed, the next step is to pass the anesthesia boards.
Many anesthesia providers then elect to complete a fellowship program (often several years long) which prepares them for practice in the anesthesia subspecialty field of their choice– such as cardiac surgery, pediatrics, radiology, etc.
Specialty Areas and Patient Services For Anesthesiologists and Anesthetists
Both the CRNA and the anesthesiologist are able to care for the same types of patients as well as work in the same specialty (and subspecialty) anesthesia areas.
Those areas include obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, cardiac surgery, pain management, dental surgery, orthopedics, neurosurgery, palliative (hospice) care, organ transplantation, doctors’ offices and outpatient surgery centers, and even the military. They are also able to fill the same positions in clinical areas, administration, management, and research.
While the CRNA and anesthesiologist work alongside each other and share the same colleagues, depending upon the state in which the CRNA lives or works, the CRNA may be required to work under the supervision of an anesthesiologist or in collaborative practice with a physician anesthesia provider, while in other states, the CRNA may work in complete autonomy.
Salary Comparison Between an Anesthetist and an Anesthesiologist
As is well known in the medical field, a CRNA is typically the most handsomely compensated of the advanced practice nurses.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data from May 2019, the CRNA, depending upon their state of employment, employer type (hospital, office setting, etc.), and anesthesia specialty area, can expect to earn a yearly salary between $116,820 and $208,000.
CRNAs employed in more rural states like Montana or Wyoming, or simply in more rural areas of their state, tend to work with the most autonomy and in the highest salary range.
Data reported in the Medscape Anesthesiologist Compensation Report regarding the 2019 salary of the anesthesiologist showed an average annual salary of $386,000, again, with higher salary noted for those who are employed in the more rural states (or the West Coast) and dependent upon specialty area.
Choosing Which Career Path Is Right For You
How do you choose whether to pursue a career as a nurse anesthetist or an anesthesiologist?
One way to help you decide could be determining your personality traits through a psychological assessment tool such as the popular Myers-Briggs test. The Myers-Briggs test has been used for over a half-century to help people align their particular personality types with compatible career paths.
Personality Types Often Associated with Anesthesiologists
A study was conducted that observed the Myers Briggs personality types across associated medical specialties. The study found that individuals who choose a career as an anesthesiologist (doctor) are often classified as “ISFJs”, reflecting “Introverted Sensing Feeling Judging” personality types.
This means that if you are someone who would consider themselves an introvert who learns in a more concrete or literal manner (memorization), makes decisions with your heart, and you prefer things to be neat and orderly (make lists, strict adherence to schedules), then you might be a good fit for an anesthesiologist.
Personality Types Often Associated with Anesthetists
Data discussing personality types of the anesthetist is a bit harder to come by as it is such a niche medical specialty. However, we can look at the personality type of a Registered Nurse (RN) as being an RN is a precursor to pursuing a career as a CRNA.
According to Career Assessment Site, a strong percentage of “ESFJs”, reflecting “Extroverted Sensing Feeling Judging” personality traits, choose to become registered nurses. An ESFJ tends to be warm, sympathetic, and helpful. They are decisive, thorough, and consistent and are also known for being conscientious and loyal, working diligently in order to follow through on their undertaking.
Key Takeaways On Anesthesiologist and Anesthetist Personality Types
When looking at the personality differences between those who pursue a career in medicine versus a career in nursing, it’s hard not to notice the innate similarities of sympathy and judgment skills. These characteristics tend to be common in the medical field, from understanding patients’ needs and concerns to making critical and life-altering decisions.
Where a notable difference arises is in extroverts versus introverts. As a whole, nurses tend to be more extroverted than their medical counterparts, at least according to recent studies. Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone, and it also doesn’t mean that extroverts should automatically go down the nursing path while introverts should buckle down for the long haul towards becoming a doctor.
It’s also important to think about the industry as a whole and who you may be working alongside. Maybe you enjoy being surrounded by extroverts who will challenge you to be more proactive, or maybe you work best alongside introverts who are focused on sharing their knowledge and teaching others. Whichever side you choose, it’s important to consider your comfort level and likelihood to thrive in particular professional settings.
It’s Ultimately Up To You
Both the careers of an anesthetist and an anesthesiologist are rewarding.
Consider the knowledge you already have about the industry and determine where your skills and personality would fit in and thrive best. One is not better than the other, despite the opinions or discussions that may circulate throughout the industry.
The best path to choose is the one that works for you. Choose whatever makes you happy.
Tiffany is a nurse practitioner with 25 years of experience in healthcare. She has worked in adult general medicine/surgery, pediatrics, hospice, oncology, maternal/child health, lactation, and women’s health. She has served as Adjunct Clinical Faculty at both the University of Kansas School of Nursing and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Nursing, teaching undergraduate nursing students in a lab setting as well as at OB/GYN clinical locations. Tiffany also spent several years working outside the U.S. in developing nations providing basic healthcare to local populations as well as training local healthcare providers.