What does an anesthesiologist do?

When preparing for surgery, many patients think of the anesthesiologist as the “physician behind the mask" who sends them into sleep before the procedure and wakes them when it’s over. What they may not realize is how much the anesthesiologist does between those two points.

Anesthesiologists serve a central role in the operating room, making decisions to protect and regulate your critical life functions. They typically are the first to diagnose and treat any medical problems that may arise during surgery or the recovery period.

They are highly skilled medical doctors (M.D. or D.O.) who specialize in the field of anesthesiology. They have significantly longer and more extensive training than other classifications of anesthesia practitioners, so they are the most qualified to make anesthesia- related perioperative medical decisions. An anesthesiologist is the director of the Anesthesia Care Team.

Anesthesiologists are primarily responsible for the safety and well-being of patients before, during and after surgery. This may include:

  • Placing the patient in the state of controlled unconsciousness called “general anesthesia”
  • Providing “regional anesthetics,” in which only a portion of the body is made numb
  • Administering sedation when indicated for the relief of pain or anxiety
All of these anesthetics provide continuous pain relief and sustain patients’ critical life functions as they are affected throughout surgical, obstetrical or other medical procedures.

The role of the anesthesiologist extends beyond the operating room. The anesthesiologist is responsible for the preoperative assessment of the patient, an evaluation process that carefully considers both the patient’s current state of health and the planned surgical procedure. This evaluation allows anesthesiologists to make judgments about the safest anesthesia plan for each individual patient.

The anesthesiologist also is responsible for the well being of the patient postoperatively, while the patient emerges from the effects of anesthesia. They often are involved in the management of acute postoperative pain, as well as chronic and cancer pain; cardiac and respiratory resuscitation; blood transfusion therapies; and respiratory therapy.

Anesthesiologists in the United States complete a four year undergraduate college degree that includes satisfying pre-med requirements. Like other medical doctors, anesthesiologists must follow undergraduate education with four years of medical school. After medical school, a physician specializing in anesthesiology completes a four-year anesthesiology residency program. They are then eligible to sit for the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA) exam. Almost 90 percent of anesthesiologists are board-certified.

Although anesthesiologists complete a minimum of eight years of medical training after college, many elect to spend an additional fellowship year of specialty training in specific areas such as pain management, cardiac anesthesia, pediatric anesthesia, neuroanesthesia, obstetric anesthesia or critical care medicine. They may also seek certification in one of following subspecialties, which require additional training and examinations: critical care medicine, hospice and palliative medicine and pain medicine.