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CRNA vs. Anesthesiologist: What's the Difference?

03.23.2016 | By:

You’re interested in a career helping patients through painful medical procedures and want to take on the role of administering anesthesia. If you’ve done some basic research, you know that you have two main options to pursue your dream career:  anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist. 

But what are the differences? While their titles may sound similar, the educational background and working environments of these positions can vary drastically.

Anesthesiologists are medical doctors, which means they must spend four years in undergraduate studies, four years in medical school, and three to four years in a residency program. Some anesthesiologists may also choose to go on to complete specialty fellowships.

Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) are required to complete an undergraduate degree, become a registered nurse, get one year of critical care experience, then complete a CRNA degree program, which can be from 28 – 36 months long. (Read this article about the upcoming change in CRNA education requirements.) CRNAs have similar responsibilities as anesthesiologists, such as prescribing medicine and ordering diagnostic tests. In some states they must work with a supervising board-certified physician. Fifteen states have done away with the law requiring nurse anesthetists to work under a physician.

Other than the potential supervision required for CRNAs, the process of putting a patient under anesthesia is the same for both nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists. Smaller medical offices are more likely to have nurse anesthetists. Larger hospitals typically employ both anesthesiologists and CRNAs. While both work in urban areas, about 2/3 of all anesthetics in rural areas are administered by CRNAs.

It has been hotly debated in recent years whether nurse anesthetists or anesthesiologists provide a better level of care. According to the New York Times, two studies conducted in 2010, “...Concluded that there is no significant difference in the quality of care when the anesthetic is delivered by a certified registered nurse anesthetist or by an anesthesiologist.”

Additionally, “Analysts at the Research Triangle Institute found that there was no evidence of increased deaths or complications in 14 states that had opted out of requiring that a physician (usually an anesthesiologist or the operating surgeon) supervise the nurse anesthetists.”

If you’re considering your Master of Science in Nurse Anesthesia, there are many benefits to choosing this option over becoming an anesthesiologist. While CRNA programs are competitive and intense, the cost to earn your degree and time spent working toward your degree are much less than the cost and time it takes to be an anesthesiologist.

In addition, while anesthesiologists have higher earning potential, the median annual salary reported as $246,320 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they have less of a work-life balance and must wait longer to begin their career due to their grueling educational requirements.

At Texas Wesleyan, our Master of Science in Nurse Anesthesia program is designed to help CRNA students get the best education and on-hands experience, helping them to become independent thinkers who are comfortable in the operating room. If you think nurse anesthesia is a better fit for you than anesthesiology, learn more about our CRNA master’s program here.