What Is It REALLY Like Being a Nurse Anesthetist?

Nurse giving anesthesia to patient

Having spent a healthy amount of time in the working world, you now know there’s no such thing as “a typical day in the life” of a registered nurse (RN). There are more than 100 potential specializations RNs can choose from, all of which are paired with their own unique set of daily duties. A hospice nurse, for example, will likely have drastically different on-the-job experiences than an operating room nurse.

The variety of different opportunities that await nurses is one element that draws healthcare hopefuls into this dynamic career path—if you start working in one sector of nursing, you’re far from locked into that specialty for the entirety of your career.

Whether you’re someone who is constantly in search of something new to challenge you or you’re just not the type who likes to stick with the same old thing for too long, you may be reaching a point where you’re wondering what’s next for your nursing career.

Working as a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) could be the perfect solution for your healthcare career aspirations. Considered to be among the most advanced and highest-paid of all nursing professions, you could experience the sense of professional autonomy and high-stakes excitement you’re looking for as a CRNA. Read on to learn more about life as a nurse anesthetist.

What is a CRNA?

A type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), anesthesiologist nurses—or nurse anesthetists—are responsible for administering anesthesia to patients. These healthcare professionals work independently, regularly serving as the sole anesthetist within a medical practice or healthcare facility. In fact, the advanced training required puts nurse anesthetists on a level similar to physicians, making this specialty quite unique among other nursing careers.

Nurse anesthetist job duties

Nurses working in this sphere care for patients before, during and after medical procedures. The CRNA is responsible for evaluating the patient to help determine the best anesthetic plan for them, according to Nick Angelis, CRNA and author. The next step is to prepare the room with the right equipment for the surgery or procedure and whatever follows.

Once the nurse anesthetist administers the anesthetic to the patient, they’re responsible for monitoring his or her vitals throughout the procedure. The job does not end until the patient has fully recovered from the effects of anesthesia.

Nurse anesthetists will typically work in hospitals, pain clinics, trauma or surgical centers, plastic surgery clinics, podiatry clinics or dental clinics. The anesthesia delivered by CRNAs can be administered via gas, intravenous liquids or oral medication. The intent can be to provide twilight sleep for minor procedures, localized pain relief for outpatient procedures or pain management procedures for patients suffering from chronic pain or trauma.

Nurse anesthetist salary

Certified nurse anesthetists earned a 2017 median annual salary of $165,120, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.* This ranks them among the highest paid of all the 100+ nursing specialties. At a glance, it may be difficult for some to deduce why nurse anesthetists see such a significant salary hike compared to other nursing specialties—they spend most of their days just sitting and monitoring patient vitals, right?

While that’s generally true, it can be helpful to weigh what’s actually at stake during those hours of monitoring. When put under anesthesia, patients’ lives are quite literally in the hands of the anesthesiologist—if something goes wrong, they’re often one of the first to know and must act both accordingly and quickly.

Angelis explains that while CRNAs work closely with physicians, their input carries a lot of weight and responsibility in these situations. “Although my personality is laid back, at work I know where all of my equipment and drugs are and can respond to an emergency or a change in patient status instantly,” he says. This ability to think and work under pressure is vital.

Patients can possess a number of different risk factors when it comes to anesthesia, such as sleep apnea, high blood pressure, seizures, alcoholism and smoking. Details like this must remain top of mind throughout the procedure. Good CRNAs develop a sort of sixth sense that allows them to detect when something may be wrong with a patient based on a small abnormality in their vitals.

The future of CRNA jobs

Healthcare services in general are undergoing an increase in demand among our aging U.S. population. Because APRNs are qualified to perform many of the same duties as physicians, these top-tier nurses will be in particularly high demand.

In fact, employment for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners—all types of APRNs—is projected to grow 31 percent by 2026 by the BLS.* That’s more than four times the average of all occupations nationwide. It should also be noted that the need for CRNAs is significantly higher in rural communities where physicians are often in short supply.

What does it take to work as a CRNA?

As you might guess, not just any RN is qualified to take up post in one of the highest-paid nursing specializations out there—the CRNA credentials must be properly earned so we can all rest assured that our lives will be in good hands should we ever require anesthesiology.

Nurse anesthetist requirements

All nurse anesthetists get their start by first earning their RN credential. This, as you likely already know, can include either pursuing an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN). All APRNs must obtain their RN licensure before pursuing education for their advanced practice role of choice. It should also be noted that most APRN programs prefer candidates with a BSN, though others may offer bridge programs for RNs with just an ADN.

Most nurse anesthetist positions consider a Master’s degree to be the minimum required education, but many APRNs opt to pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or a Ph.D. It’s also true that accredited nurse anesthetist programs often require prospective students to have at least one year of clinical experience as a prerequisite for admission.

Most states agree that in order to work as an APRN, regardless of specialization, candidates must complete a graduate degree from an accredited program, be a licensed RN and pass a national certification exam. Some states also prefer that candidates earn a second license specific to their desired APRN role, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Nurse anesthetist skills

Proficiency in their duties related to administering anesthesia and monitoring vital signs is of utmost importance, but there are a number of other skills required of the most successful nurse anesthetists. Angelis notes that one of the major differentiators between CRNAs and RNs is the specialized responsibilities required of the former. He maintains that nurse anesthetists will be expected to master certain technical skills such as arterial line placement, tracheal intubation, spinals and epidurals.

To get a better grasp on the skills required of CRNAs, we used real-time job analysis software to examine more than 9,000 nurse anesthetist job postings from the last year. Aside from a strong grasp of anesthesiology, the majority of CRNA job openings sought candidates with proficiency in the following areas:**

  • Surgery
  • Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS)
  • Patient care
  • Pain management
  • Airway management
  • Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)
  • Postoperative care
  • Teaching ability
  • Critical care

Is a career as a nurse anesthetist right for you?

If you’re looking for an advanced, high-stakes and well-compensated nursing specialty that will keep you on your toes, you might consider pursuing a career as a CRNA. From the excitement of working in environments like the operating room to the level of professional autonomy that almost rivals that of physicians, working as a nurse anesthetist could be the perfect fit for a go-getter like you.

Whether you have yet to earn your RN licensure or you’re looking to level up to a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing, it’s never too late to work toward a career as a CRNA. Your first step will be getting established as a RN—and Rasmussen University can help you get there. Learn more about the Rasmussen University Nursing degree programs by visiting our article, “10 Facts You Didn’t Know About the Rasmussen University Nursing Programs.”

*Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [career information accessed November 6, 2018] www.bls.gov/ooh/.
**Source: Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 9,707 nurse anesthetist job postings, Oct. 01, 2017 – Sep. 30, 2018)
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in August 2015. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2018.

Jess Scherman

Jess is a Content Specialist at Collegis Education. She researches and writes articles on behalf of Rasmussen University to help empower students to achieve their career dreams through higher education.


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