Specialty focus

Is anesthesiology right for you?

Many are drawn to the high pay and good work-life balance that anesthesiology offers. But the specialty requires certain personality traits, DOs attest.

The specialty of anesthesiology offers physicians unique opportunities: the chance to develop advanced expertise in pharmacology, work with patients when they’re at their most vulnerable and develop pain management plans.

DO anesthesiologists describe their field as fast-paced and intellectually demanding, yet amenable to family life, with intense high-pressure workdays offset by ample personal time.

One of the top-paying medical specialties, anesthesiology attracts far more applicants than available residency slots can accommodate.

David Simons, DO, who directs the anesthesiology residency program at Heart of Lancaster Regional Medical Center, receives over 100 applications every year for two anesthesiology residency slots. He looks for mature and well-rounded applicants for his program, which recently transitioned from AOA to ACGME accreditation. Students who have completed an audition rotation with the program have a better chance at landing a slot in it, he notes.

To be competitive for residencies, osteopathic medical students need stellar scores on the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination—USA (COMLEX-USA) or the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

Normally, osteopathic medical students have limited formal exposure to anesthesiology until the fourth year of med school, when it is offered as an elective rotation. But students contemplating an anesthesiology career need to lay a strong foundation in their first year by mastering the basic sciences. Such students should also find opportunities to learn more about and demonstrate interest in the science and technology of anesthesia.

Long career, balanced life

Anesthesiologists earn as much as $360,000 per year on average, according to a 2016 Medscape report.

Although attending anesthesiologists frequently work 12-hour days and are on in-house call for 24-hour shifts, they typically receive several weeks of paid vacation time per year, and they aren’t expected to be accessible on their days off.

Today, anesthesiologists have many practice options, with varying hours and flexibility, notes Allan R. Escher, DO, the chairman of the American Osteopathic Board of Anesthesiology. “By practicing at a surgery center or with a group administering office-based anesthesia, or by practicing pain management in an office setting, it is possible to have a career in anesthesiology in which you have set hours or work part time,” he says.

Given this flexibility, it is not usual for anesthesiologists to practice well into their 70s, and more and more women are entering the specialty, Dr. Escher points out. Although anesthesiologists sometimes experience career burnout because of daily pressures, it less likely than in emergency medicine and surgical specialties, he says.

What it takes

Despite the adaptability of an anesthesiology career, the requirements to enter the field are strict. Only those with specific interests, aptitudes and personality traits should consider the specialty, anesthesiologists say.

“As anesthesiologists, we essentially are doing applied clinical pharmacology,” observes Mike Green, DO, the director of the anesthesiology residency program at the Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. “We’re giving patients medications and watching the changes in real time as they are occurring in the operating room. That’s what makes it exciting.”

The specialty, thus, draws medical students who excel in the basic sciences and pharmacology, Dr. Green says.

“I loved physiology in college and medical school, and the specialty of anesthesiology allows me to continue to study it,” Dr. Simons says.

And it appeals to results-driven individuals, who like to see the fruits of their labors immediately. With patients’ lives hanging in the balance, anesthesiologists must be extremely observant and able to think and act very fast. They must be detail-minded and always well-prepared should something go awry.

Hospital-based anesthesiologists constitute a major component of critical care medicine, so individuals considering anesthesiology need to have an aptitude, as well as passion, for caring for patients with life-threatening conditions, Dr. Green notes. “We assess people when they enter the hospital. We assess them preoperatively and develop an anesthetic plan. We take care of them in the operating room. And we take care of them during the postoperative period,” he says.

Further reading on medical specialties
Quiz: What’s the ideal medical specialty for your personality?

Orthopedic surgery: Tips on landing a residency in this specialty

Primary care sports medicine: The osteopathic approach

Editor’s Note: A different version of this story was originally posted in 2012. The story has been updated to include new information, including a new program director interview.

6 comments

  1. Hi did the article mean to state that it’s not unusual for anesthesiologists to practice into their 70’s, I was a little confused of how it was phrased in the text. Could you please clarify? I am prospective pre-med student and would love to learn more about anesthesiology.

    1. I wouldn’t get hung up on that sentence. Many specialties practice into their 70s, although most retire earlier. Not something a prospective pre-med should worry about.

  2. Coming from a pre-med who is also a paramedic that is interested in anesthesiology, I have a question.
    Would those who are anesthesiologists do it all over again if given the opportunity?
    I know that in my OR experience as a paramedic student that there have been a lot of CRNAs and AAs. I have yet to see a physician-only anesthesia practice. Is that a better model? Thanks!

    1. This tends to be the norm—supervision. Because of insurance reimbursement cut-backs, many jobs now require supervision.
      Jobs where you do your own cases are not the rule anymore. Supervision is. See my comments in my post that I wrote this morning. Make certain that your personality “fits” into this OR supervision working relationship with CRNA’s, AA’s, OR nurses and surgeons. This is of paramount importance in being a successful Anesthesiologist. Don’t overlook this part of the job.

  3. Coming from a 16-year-old who has an interest in becoming an anesthesiologist, I have a question.
    What’s one thing you would recommend studying to get a better understanding of what it takes to become an anesthesiologist?
    I’ve always been drawn to the medical field and want to know if I have what it takes to become one. Thank you for your time!

  4. I am a practicing Anesthesiologist for over 23 years and have a few pieces of advice:
    1. The successful Anesthesiologist has to have a certain personality. He/she must be able to get along with CRNA’s and AA’s. Many jobs now are structured for Anesthesia supervision only of CRNA’s and AA’s. Because of the financial cut backs from insurance companies, many jobs require an Anesthesiologist to supervise
    3-4 OR’s. Doing one’s own cases are not
    the norm anymore. To best gain an understanding of what this really entails, a prospective applicant should spend time in the OR and see if they have the right “personality fit” for the job. There is no other way of finding this out—cannot read a book or an article to see if you actually like and can “fit” the atmosphere of this OR environment working relationship. Ask questions of others who actually work in the field about the working relationships and the OR environment. The answers may surprise you. This is perhaps the most important aspect of job satisfaction for an Anesthesiologist. One needs to make certain that he/she actually “fits” into what the specialty requires and actually is!
    2. Don’t just look at the money. If I had to tell a medical student what is important to pick a residency/specialty, I would tell them to first and most importantly look to see if they like and “personality fit” into that specialty. This is what will determine your happiness in that specialty for the course of your career!

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