What Is a Nurse Anesthetist and How to Become One

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Read this guide to discover nurse anesthetist schooling requirements, how nurse anesthetist programs at the doctoral level are changing, nurse anesthetist salary, and how you can become a CRNA.

[Featured Image] A nurse anesthetist cares for a patient.

As a nurse anesthetist, you are a highly skilled medical professional who administers anesthesia to patients before, during, and after surgical procedures. You are responsible for monitoring your patients' vital signs and managing their pain. 

To become a nurse anesthetist, you must first earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or a Doctor of Nursing Anesthetics Practice (DNAP).  Then, you must be certified by the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetics (NBCRNA). You will also need to take the continued Professional Certificate exam every four years.

As a nurse anesthetist, you’ll be a registered nurse with advanced training in administering anesthesia. You’ll administer anesthesia, monitor patients’ vital signs, and oversee patient recovery from anesthesia.

Nurse anesthetists work in various settings, including hospitals, ambulatory surgery centers, and private practice offices. As a nurse anesthetist, you may work with nurses, surgeons, and other physicians. As a part of an anesthesia care team, you’ll work alongside certified registered nurse anesthetist students (CRNA students), assistant nurse anesthetists (ANA), registered nurses (RNs), and anesthesia technicians. 

Read more: How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

What does a nurse anesthetist do?

A nurse anesthetist performs the duties in three stages: preoperative, intraoperative, and postoperative. Before surgery, you need to assess the patient's medical history and current condition to determine if any factors may pose complications with the anesthesia. Throughout the surgical process and after, you’re also responsible for:

  • Undertaking a physical assessment

  • Taking part in preoperative teaching

  • Choosing the correct type of anesthesia for each patient

  • Determining the proper amount of anesthesia 

  • Monitoring the patient's vital signs and adjusting the amount of anesthesia as necessary

  • Delivering anesthesia via gas and intravenously to keep the patient pain-free 

  • Maintaining anesthesia intraoperatively

  • Administering medications that help block pain 

  • Preparing for anesthetic management

  • Responding appropriately if complications arise

  • Supervising recovery from anesthesia

  • Proving postsurgical pain management to help ensure a controlled recovery

What skills do I need to work as a nurse anesthetist?

As a nurse anesthetist, you must be professional, think critically, communicate well, and possess technical nursing skills. During nurse anesthetist schooling and your career, you’ll develop an advanced skill set to use specialized equipment and make and communicate complex decisions. Here are some of the core competencies you need as a nurse anesthetist:

Critical thinking: You need to be able to make quick decisions based on patient observations and test results.

Attention to detail: You need to interpret data, such as a patient's vital signs, and adjust accordingly. You also need good technical knowledge when administering precise doses of anesthesia and other medicines.

Interpersonal skills: You must work well with others on the health care team, including doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals.

Communication skills: You need to be able to explain what you're doing as you administer anesthesia and provide updates about your patient's condition after surgery.

Nursing skills: To offer safe, high-quality care as a nurse anesthetist, you must have excellent clinical skills, including physical assessment skills. You also need to keep up-to-date with best practices in the field of anesthesia and new developments in pain management.

How much does a nurse anesthetist make?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual nurse anesthetist salary is $195,610 as of May 2021[1]. This is significantly higher than nurse practitioners and midwives, with average salaries of $120,680 and $112,830, respectively. 

What is the career outlook for a nurse anesthetist working in the US?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for nurse anesthetists will grow by 45 percent from 2020 to 2030. This is a much faster rate than the national average for jobs in the United States [2].

Is being a nurse anesthetist a good career choice?

Some benefits of being a nurse anesthetist include higher compensation within the nursing field, a positive job outlook, and both personal and professional satisfaction. While many professions within nursing dedicate themselves to helping patients get better, you’ll have the opportunity to help them feel better. 

Your job as an anesthetist is to ensure that patients do not feel pain throughout the surgical care cycle. While this may seem simple enough, it can be quite complicated because each person feels pain differently and has different drug tolerances. You must also know how to handle problems if they arise before, during, or after surgery.

When deciding if being a nurse anesthetist is the right career choice for you, keep in mind that it entails working in high-stress environments with critically ill people who require life-saving care. You’ll be able to make a difference in people’s lives every day.

Some of the benefits of becoming a nurse anesthetist include the following:

  • Autonomy: As a nurse anesthetist, you’ll practice independently and in collaboration with other health care team members.

  • Compensation: CRNAs are among the highest-paid advanced practice nurses.

  • Demand: The demand for CRNAs is very high and continues to rise.

  • Intellectually challenging: Your work as a CRNA is considered intellectually demanding, requiring insight and critical thinking.

  • Professional satisfaction: As a nurse anesthetist, you can typically get great professional satisfaction from providing quality care to patients in pain.

Depending upon your work type, you may work nights, weekends, and holidays, especially if you work in a facility that provides around-the-clock emergency treatment. 

Follow these steps to become a nurse anesthetist.

To become a nurse anesthetist, you need to have experience in acute medical or surgical settings, earn qualifications, and become licensed. You then need to maintain licensure.

Education

To become a nurse anesthetist, you must obtain a doctoral degree and certification. The landscape in the profession has changed, as CRNAs were previously only required to have a master’s degree. Beginning in 2025 new nurse anesthetists will be required to have earned a doctoral degree. Institutions currently offering programs in nursing anesthesia have had to adjust their curricula.

Read more: Your Guide to Nursing Degrees and Certifications

As a nurse anesthetist, you are an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). After becoming a registered nurse and working in the profession, you will complete a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program or a Doctor of Nursing Anesthesia Practice (DNAP). These are the two doctoral qualifications approved by the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA). You’ll typically spend three years doing your doctoral degree.

You typically need a bachelor's degree in nursing before going to higher levels of education in nursing. Some doctoral nurse anesthetist programs will accept you if you have completed a graduate degree in another discipline or an associate degree in nursing, as long as you have the required clinical experience. Most doctoral programs require you to have at least one year of critical-care experience to gain admittance to a program. 

Certification

After graduation, you will take the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA) to become licensed as a registered nurse anesthetist. After passing and getting certified for the first time, you must take the Continued Professional Certification Exam every four years. All states require certification for you to call yourself a nurse anesthetist.

Training

After meeting the education and certification requirements, you can gain hands-on experience as a nurse under the supervision of a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA). During this training period, you will learn to perform various anesthesia procedures. You should also become familiar with respiratory care equipment, drug effects, and patient monitoring techniques.

Since nurse anesthetist careers require considerable education and training, it can take six to seven years to qualify and a minimum of one year of clinical experience.

Getting started 

Becoming a nurse anesthetist involves several years of education and clinical training. It is regarded as the highest-paid nursing specialization. An important part of your role will require you to understand vital signs and pain. To develop your understanding of anatomy and how vital signs and pain communicate physiological status, consider taking this Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us course, offered by the University of Pennsylvania on Coursera.

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm#tab-5.” Accessed April 7, 2022.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm#tab-6.” Accessed April 7, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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