What Is a Nurse Anesthetist? And How to Become One

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Read this guide to discover what a nurse anesthetist is and requirements to become one.

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

Nurse anesthetists are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who administer anesthesia to patients before, during, and after surgical procedures.

Typically employed in a variety of health care environments, such as hospitals, ambulatory surgery centers, and private practice offices, nurse anesthetists work alongside nurses, surgeons, and physicians to ensure their patients receive the best care possible.

If you're interested in a high-paying, high-growth nursing position, then you might consider a career as a nurse anesthetist. In this article, you'll learn more about what nurse anesthetists do, how much they earn, and their job outlook in the coming years. You'll also find out what you need to do to join the field and explore some cost-effective, online courses that will introduce you to some of the key concepts you'll need to excel in the job.

Nurse anesthetists explained

Nurse anesthetists administer anesthesia to patients, monitor their vital signs, and help them manage their pain and post-surgery recovery. Nurse anesthetists are sometimes called certified registered nurse anesthetist, or CRNAs. As registered nurses (RNs) with advanced training in administering anesthesia, nurse anesthetists must possess either a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or a Doctor of Nursing Anesthetics Practice (DNAP) alongside certification from the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetics (NBCRNA). As a result, nurse anesthetists are highly-skilled medical professionals who are tasked with many important responsibilities, command a significantly higher than average salary, and are much sought after within the medical field.

What does a nurse anesthetist do?

A nurse anesthetist performs their duties in three stages: preoperative, intraoperative, and postoperative. Before surgery, you'll 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’ll also be 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 post-surgical pain management to help ensure a controlled recovery

Check out this fascinating video on sensory systems from the University of Michigan:

Kelli Sullivan, lecturer in the Division of Anatomical Sciences at the University of Michigan, discusses the central and peripheral nervous systems.

Nurse anesthetist skills

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

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

But what sets CRNAs apart from RNs is the specialized responsibilities, such as spinals, epidurals, tracheal intubations, and arterial line placements. Nurse anesthetists often need proficiency in:

  • Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS)

  • Pain management

  • Surgery

  • Airway management

  • Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)

  • Postoperative care

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.

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.

Read more: What Does a Registered Nurse Do? Your 2023 Career Guide

Nurse anesthetist salary and job outlook

The median annual salary for nurse anesthetists was $195,610 in May 2021. By comparison, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that nurse practitioners made a median annual salary of $120,680 during the same period, while nurse midwives earned $112,830 [1]. 

Not only do nurse anesthetists earn a high salary, they are also in high demand. According to the BLS, employment for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners is projected to grow by a whopping 40 percent between 2021 and 2031, resulting in approximately 30,200 new jobs added each year. This is a much faster rate than the projected average job growth in the United States during the same period [2].

Benefits of becoming a nurse anesthetist

Some benefits of being a CRNA include high compensation within the nursing field, a positive job outlook, a rewarding job, and both personal and professional satisfaction.

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'll need to know how to handle problems if they arise before, during, or after surgery.

Benefits of becoming a nurse anesthetist include:

  • 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.

Read more: Is Health Care a Good Career Path? Outlook, Jobs, and More

How to become a nurse anesthetist

To become a nurse anesthetist, you need to have experience in acute medical or surgical settings, earn the right qualifications, become licensed, and then maintain your license with continuing education and relicensing efforts. Here's what you can expect on the path to becoming a nurse anesthetist:

1. Obtain the right credentials.

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. Starting 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.

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), the two doctoral qualifications approved by the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA). You’ll typically spend three years completing your doctoral degree.

Usually, you'll also 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. 

Read more: Your Guide to Nursing Degrees and Certifications

2. Get certified.

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 to become a nurse anesthetist.

3. Gain work experience.

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.

Start your health care journey

Becoming a nurse anesthetist involves many years of education and clinical training. Consider exploring key concepts related to the field by taking a cost-effective online course through Coursera today.

To help deepen your understanding of how vital signs and pain correlate within the body, you might consider taking the University of Pennsylvania's Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us course.



Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us

The vital signs – heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, respiration rate, and pain – communicate important information about the physiological ...


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Article sources


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 January 17, 2023.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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