THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A PHYSICIAN ANESTHESIOLOGIST AND A NURSE ANESTHETIST

Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.
emailrjnov@yahoo.com

What’s the difference between a physician anesthesiologist and a nurse anesthetist? After the first 3 – 4 years in the workforce, either one can master the manual skills of anesthesia. That is, either one can display excellence in intubating the trachea, performing a spinal or an epidural anesthetic, performing a nerve block, inserting an arterial line, or inserting a central venous pressure catheter. There is no fork in the career path that makes a busy Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) automatically inferior to a medical doctor anesthesiologist in hands-on skills. So what really is the difference between a physician anesthesiologist and a nurse anesthetist? The answer: internal medicine.

All physician anesthesiologists graduate from medical school, where they rotate through clerkships in surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics-gynecology, internal medicine, emergency medicine and psychiatry, as well as electives in surgical or medicine subspecialties of their choice.

By contrast, CRNAs are registered nurses experienced in intensive care or emergency room nursing, who then enter a 2 – 3 year program of learning the skills to anesthetize patientsCRNAs can now administer anesthesia independent of any physician anesthesiologist supervision in the majority of the United States

The difference between a physician anesthesiologist and a nurse anesthetist is that the former has a depth of knowledge of 1) the physiology of the human body, 2) the pathophysiology of diseases, 3) the breadth of pharmacology, and 4) the ability to make diagnoses and prescribe treatment. In short, the physician anesthesiologist has extensive training in the internal medicine essentials of 1), 2), 3), and 4) above.

Nurse anesthetists are valuable and integral cogs in American healthcare. It’s not my intention to demean or minimize the role of CRNAs. My goal is to point out the most specific difference between a physician anesthesiologist and a nurse anesthetist.

At Stanford our department is named the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine. What is Perioperative Medicine? Perioperative Medicine is all the medical care before, during, and after surgery. Is Perioperative Medicine a subspecialty of internal medicine? In a way, it is. Following an internal medicine residency, graduates may subspecialize in cardiology, oncology, pulmonary medicine, kidney medicine, infectious disease, critical care, or . . . perioperative medicine. When I finished my Stanford internal medicine residency, the top four choices among my colleagues for the next step were: #1 a cardiology fellowship, #2 general internal medicine private practice, #3 an anesthesia residency, or #4 an oncology fellowship.

Stanford University now offers a combined internal medicine/anesthesiology residency, with the goal of training leaders in anesthesiology. The PGY1 year is spent entirely on medicine rotations.  The PGY2 year consists of all anesthesia rotations.  During PGY3-5 years, the resident alternates between 3 months of medicine rotations and 3 months of anesthesia rotations.

The outgoing Chairman of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford is Ronald Pearl MD PhD, an outstanding clinician and scientist who led our department for twenty-two years. In addition to board-certification in internal medicine and anesthesiology, Dr. Pearl is also board certified in critical care medicine. Dr. Pearl is one of the smartest clinicians I’ve ever met. His extensive internal medicine knowledge raises him above other anesthesia providers. 

Currently, anesthesiology residency programs are three years in duration, beginning after a resident has completed at least one year of internship. During those three years of anesthesia residency (PGY2 – PGY4) the resident rotates through

  • two one-month rotations in: obstetric anesthesiology, pediatric anesthesiology, neuro anesthesiology, and cardiothoracic anesthesiology
  • a minimum of one month in the adult intensive care unit during each of the three years 
  • three months of pain medicine, including one month in acute perioperative pain, one month in chronic pain, and one month of regional analgesia/peripheral nerve blocks
  • one-half month in a preoperative evaluation clinic 
  • one-half month in a post anesthesia care unit, and one-half month in out-of-OR locations.  

These rotations of an anesthesia resident develop the young doctor into a clinician comfortable in preoperative assessment and management, in the intraoperative administration of anesthesia, and in the postoperative evaluation and treatment of patients. 

Currently, internal medicine residency programs are three years in duration, including a one-year internship in internal medicine. During those three years (PGY1 -PGY3) a resident rotates through: 

  • a minimum of 4 months of critical care (medical ICU or cardiac care unit) rotations
  • a minimum of 1/3 of Internal Medicine training occurs in an ambulatory setting
  • a minimum of 1/3 of Internal Medicine training occurs in an inpatient setting
  • a longitudinal continuity clinic of 130 one-half-day sessions over the course of training, including one clinic per month. The continuity clinic includes evaluation of performance data for resident’s panel of patients.
  • exposure to each of the internal medicine subspecialties and to neurology
  • an assignment in geriatric medicine
  • an emergency medicine experience of four weeks
  • electives available in psychiatry, allergy/immunology, dermatology, medical ophthalmology, office gynecology, otorhinolaryngology, non-operative orthopedics, palliative medicine, sleep medicine, and rehabilitation medicine

These rotations of an internal medicine resident develop the young doctor into a broadly trained clinician experienced in multiple areas.

I’m not advocating that anesthesia departments be folded under the umbrella of their institution’s department of internal medicine. Instead, what I am recognizing is that the field of anesthesiology is more than putting in breathing tubes, arterial catheters, IV lines, or nerve block needles in a variety of different surgical settings. The field of anesthesiology is understanding and managing medical problems before, during, and after surgery, i.e., Perioperative Medicine. Describing our specialty with the word “Anesthesia” is an oversimplification of what we do. If our specialty was newly named today, it would be called Perioperative Medicine, period.

What about pediatric perioperative medicine? Doesn’t pediatric perioperative medicine involve the knowledge base of pediatricians, instead of the knowledge base of internal medicine? Yes. Deep knowledge of pediatric medicine instead of internal medicine (on adult patients) applies to pediatric perioperative medicine. No doubt a pediatrician who then completes an anesthesia residency will likely be an outstanding pediatric perioperative doctor, but only 5.4 % of anesthesia care in the United States is on pediatric patients less than 15 years old. The majority of the knowledge base for anesthesia care pertains to adult patients, i.e. the knowledge base for internal medicine physicians.

Several examples will illustrate why internal medicine forms the backbone of perioperative anesthesia practice. Before surgery, a patient who presents with insulin dependent diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and obstructive sleep apnea is an example of the kind of patient an internal medicine doctor sees regularly in his or her outpatient clinic. During surgery, a patient who develops atrial fibrillation or marked hypertension is an example of the kind of events an internal medicine doctor sees in an intensive care unit. After surgery, a patient who presents with chest pain or shortness of breath is an example of the kind of patient an internal medicine doctor sees in the emergency room or in the intensive care unit. Wait . . . you can argue that a CRNA has previous experience working as a registered nurse in an ICU or an emergency room before beginning nurse anesthetist training. But a registered nurse in an ICU or an emergency room does not independently diagnose and treat medical conditions. A registered nurse in an ICU or an emergency room follows written orders from a medical doctor. There is a world of difference between a medical doctor commanding diagnosis and treatment in an ICU/emergency room versus a registered nurse who follows orders.

Should all anesthesia residency training follow the Stanford optional model of combining internal medicine and anesthesia residencies into one program? No. Prolonging the training of every physician anesthesiologist in the United States makes little sense, but those who desire to be leaders will consider this double-residency option. 

Recent years brought an attempt to rename the territory of anesthesiologists as the “Perioperative Surgical Home.”  The Perioperative Surgical Home is defined as “a patient-centered, team-based, and coordinated perioperative care setup, composed of the head anesthesiologist-perioperativist in tandem with dedicated nurse practitioners and other PSH team doctors.” This is a move in a positive direction, with the intent of better patient care coordinated by an anesthesiologist-led team. There is an economic barrier to the Perioperative Surgical Home, in that the PSH may appear to be a coup attempt for anesthesia departments to take over jurisdictions from preoperative and postoperative internal medicine doctors. Any adoption of the PSH will likely be gradual, as the battle for patients plays out in each medical center.

Instead, a first step is that anesthesia departments redefine themselves as Departments of Perioperative Medicine, and that the academic training for these departments involve increasing time spent expanding the internal medicine knowledge base of residents in medical intensive care units, cardiac intensive care units, medicine wards, and medicine clinics. Performing month after month of repetitive intraoperative anesthesia care has a decreasing return on expanding a resident’s fund of knowledge, and can serve to make the role of a physician anesthesiologists and the role of a nurse anesthetist close to being the same.

It’s important that physician anesthesiologists create perceivable differences between themselves and CRNAs. The role of Perioperative Medical Doctors is a more broad and more specific identity when compared to what nurse anesthetists do. Let’s make our young physician anesthesiologist trainees into Perioperative Medicine Specialists, instead of confusing them with other anesthesia professionals who can also administer propofol, sevoflurane, and rocuronium.

The most popular posts for laypeople on The Anesthesia Consultant include:
How Long Will It Take To Wake Up From General Anesthesia?
Why Did Take Me So Long To Wake From General Anesthesia?
Will I Have a Breathing Tube During Anesthesia?
What Are the Common Anesthesia Medications?
How Safe is Anesthesia in the 21st Century?
Will I Be Nauseated After General Anesthesia?
What Are the Anesthesia Risks For Children?

The most popular posts for anesthesia professionals on The Anesthesia Consultant  include:
10 Trends for the Future of Anesthesia
Should You Cancel Anesthesia for a Potassium Level of 3.6?
12 Important Things to Know as You Near the End of Your Anesthesia Training
Should You Cancel Surgery For a Blood Pressure = 170/99?
Advice For Passing the Anesthesia Oral Board Exams
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READ ABOUT RICK NOVAK’S FICTION WRITING AT RICK NOVAK.COM

AN ANESTHESIOLOGIST’S SALARY

Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.
emailrjnov@yahoo.com

How much money does an anesthesiologist earn? What is a physician anesthesiologist’s salary in today’s marketplace?

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Let me begin by offering two anecdotes:

  • I was an invited visiting anesthesia professor at a major university this year, and following one of my lectures an anesthesiology resident approached me for a discussion. During our conversation he revealed that his student loan debt was $300,000. In 2014 the published average student loan debt for a physician was $183,000. I believe a higher estimate is not unusual, particularly if the student doctor attended private medical school and/or college.
  • I recently received an email from a medical student who was considering anesthesia as a career specialty, but his concern was: is the bottom about to fall out for anesthesiologists’ salaries? Should he perhaps avoid a career in anesthesiology?

Each anecdote concerns the issue of how much anesthesiologists earn, and what will that number be in the future?

The good news for the future of anesthesia careers is that the number of surgeries in the United States is expected at increase as the Baby Boomers age. The demand for anesthesia services will grow. Who will provide these services, and what will they be paid?

How much money do anesthesiologists currently make?

It depends.

If you do a Google search on this question, most of the published answers vary from $275,000 to $360,000 per year.

This sounds like a lot of money, but recall that to reach that salary, an anesthesiologist must finish 4 years of medical school and a 4-year anesthesia residency. At a minimum these young anesthesiologists are 30 years old. The deferred gratification is significant. Had they gone to work after college at age 22 and been promoted in a business job for 8 years, that individual might own a home, be saving for their children’s college educations, and would not have the debt from 4 years of medical school.

Let’s assume an individual does persevere and finish their anesthesia residency at age 30, and is now seeking an anesthesia job with that aforementioned average salary of $275,000 to $360,000 per year.

The first question: is that advertised salary a number prior to deductions for the big three of pension plan, health insurance, and malpractice insurance? If an anesthesiologist earns $300,000 per year, but must subtract these three expenses (let’s estimate pension plan at $45,000, health insurance at $24,000, and malpractice insurance at $20,000) then the income drops to $300,000 minus $89,000 = $211,000 per year, or $17,583 per month before taxes. Subtract again for student loan payments, and the income level continues to decrease. So a critical first question to ask is if the big three benefits are/are not part of the promised salary.

What specific factors determine how high the anesthesiologist’s salary will be? An operating room anesthesia practice is somewhat akin to being a taxi cab driver. You earn income for each ride/anesthetic, and your income depends on how many rides/anesthetics and how long they last. More complex anesthetics such as cardiac cases pay more, but the largest determiner is the duration of time one spends giving the anesthesia care. If you work in a physician anesthesiology practice where an MD stays with each surgical patient 100% of the time, then the only way to increase income is to do more cases or more hours. If you work in a practice which utilizes an anesthesia care team, where one physician anesthesiologist may supervise, for example, 4 Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs), then a physician’s income is increased because he or she is billing for and supervising care for multiple concurrent surgeries.

Different payers pay different sums per unit time. The top payers are insured patients of less than Medicare age (<65 years old). Among the lowest payers are uninsured patients (who often pay zero), Medicaid and Medicare patients, and Worker’s Compensation patients. Medicare patients routinely pay only 13-20 cents on the billed dollar, and Medicaid pays even lower, so a practice heavy with Medicare and Medicaid patients will compensate their anesthesiologists poorly. Insurance companies (i.e. Blue Cross, Blue Shield, Aetna, United Healthcare) pay whatever rate they have contracted with that anesthesia group. If a particular insurance company pays a low rate, an anesthesia group may refuse to sign a contract with that insurance company. This leaves the anesthesiologist out-of-network with that company, which can mean a higher payment or co-payment for the patient as a result of the insurance company’s refusal to negotiate a fair reimbursement.

Just as taxi cab drivers are being supplanted by Uber and Lyft, cheaper models of anesthesia care are popping up, and the penetration of these models into the future marketplace is unknown. One model is having a CRNA do the anesthetic independently without any physician anesthesiologist present. This is currently legal in 27 states (see map). At the current time, in my home state of California, independent CRNA practice is legal, but the penetration of this model in the marketplace is very minimal. The Veterans Affairs hospitals are currently pondering a move to allow CRNAs to practice independently without any physician anesthesiologist present. You can expect to see a higher penetration of the anesthesia care team, where one physician anesthesiologist may supervise, for example, 4 CRNAs, and a decrease in practices where an MD anesthesiologist stays with each patient 100% of the time.

To be blunt, my impression is that the future marketplace is unlikely to pay for a physician anesthesiologist to do solo anesthesia care for each and every surgical patient.

In the current marketplace a young graduate anesthesiologist may enter one of several different models of anesthesia practices. Each has a different level of salary expectation. The various models are listed below, in roughly a higher-income-per-anesthesiologist to lower-income-per-anesthesiologist order:

  1. A single-specialty anesthesia group that shares income fairly. This group may be as small as 5 or as large as hundreds of physician anesthesiologists, with or without additional CRNAs. Such a group usually has an exclusive contract with a hospital or hospitals to provide all anesthesia services, which can include trauma, obstetrics, and 24-hour emergency room coverage. A very large single-specialty anesthesia group may contract with many hospitals in a geographic area. In a single-specialty model, that single-specialty group receives all the anesthesia billings, and the income is divided, usually in some form of “eat-what-you-provided” formula. Those MDs who worked the most receive a proportional increase in their income. A new MD may have a one-year try-out before they become a partner, after which they are entitled to an equal income per unit time. This model where anesthesiologists are partners, is typically more lucrative than models where the anesthesiologists are employed by another entity. A survey by Medscape on anesthesiologists’ salaries in 2016 showed that male self-employed anesthesiologists (model #1) earned an average income of $413,000, while male anesthesiologist employees (see models #2 – #8 below) earned an average income of $336,000.
  2. A single-specialty anesthesia group in which a chairman (or a small oligopoly of MDs) collect the money, and then employ and grant a salary to everyone below them in the company. New hires are paid less, often with no potential to increase their income. This type of system preys on junior anesthesiologists.
  3. A multispecialty medical group. A multispecialty medical group has a bevy of primary care physicians who refer internally to their specialist surgeons, who then utilize their internal group of anesthesiologists. This is a secure job for anesthesiologists because the stream of cases is guaranteed by the physicians within their multispecialty group. A disadvantage is that incomes from lower paying specialties (primary care MDs) and higher paying specialties (i.e. cardiologists, surgeons, and anesthesiologists) are pooled. The lower paying specialists usually have their salaries raised, and the anesthesiologists will be subsidizing them.
  4. An HMO. In California the Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) Kaiser Permanente has a large share of the marketplace. The entity known as the Permanente Medical Group is the multispecialty integrated medical group which works at the Kaiser hospitals and clinics. The reimbursement model will be similar to that described in #3 above.
  5. University anesthesia groups. A university employs MDs as a multispecialty medical group, and the model is similar to #3 above. A difference is that university groups have various taxes and fees on their income that go to the betterment and growth of the medical school and the university hospital system. In addition, some university hospitals provide care to indigent populations that may have higher percentage of poor payers such as Medicaid or uninsured patients.
  6. National anesthesia companies. In this model, a national company obtains the anesthesia contract for a hospital or multiple facilities, and then that national company hires and employs anesthesiologists. The company bills for the anesthesia services provided, pays their employee anesthesiologists whatever sum they’ve agreed to pay them, and the difference between the received monies and the owed salaries is profit that goes to stockholders of the national company. This model is problematic for our specialty, because a percentage of the anesthesia fees goes to stockholders who had zero to do with performing the professional service.
  7. Veteran’s Affairs (VA) hospital anesthesia groups. At the present time, VA hospitals are staffed by anesthesiologists who are employees of the VA system. As mentioned above, there are politicians pushing for the VA to allow CRNAs to practice independently, unsupervised by physician anesthesiologists. The American Society of Anesthesiologists is opposed to this change, believing that our veterans deserve physician anesthesiologists.
  8. Locum tenens assignments. These are part-time, week-long, or month-long anesthesia duties, paid for at a daily rate. A typical fee for a full day’s work may be a pre-tax payment of $1200/day (not including the big three of pension, health or malpractice insurance).

As stated above, the good news for the future of anesthesia careers is that the number of surgeries in the United States is expected at increase as the Baby Boomers age. The demand for anesthesia services will grow. The unknown fiscal factors for the future of our specialty are:

  1. What will insurers/Medicare/Medicaid/the Affordable Care Act pay for these anesthesia services? Will a single payer government health plan ever arrive, and if it does what will anesthesiologists be paid?
  2. Who will be giving these services? Physician anesthesiologists, anesthesia care teams involving physician anesthesiologists plus CRNAs, anesthesia care teams involving physician anesthesiologists plus Anesthesia Assistants, or independent CRNAs?
  3. The American Society of Anesthesiologists is attempting to rebrand the practice of anesthesiology with the concept of the Perioperative Surgical Home (PSH), in which physician anesthesiologists are responsible for all aspects of preoperative, intraoperative, and postoperative medical care for patients around the time of surgery. This expanded role includes preoperative clinics and postoperative pain control and medical management. To what degree can/will the PSH change the job market for graduating anesthesiologists?

In any case, as I wrote on the Home Page of theanesthesiaconsultant.com website, “the profession of medicine offers a lifetime of fascination, and no specialty is more fascinating than anesthesiology.” If a college student or a medical student is truly interested in a career in anesthesia, I remain encouraging to them, regardless of these uncertainties regarding the future.

 

The most popular posts for laypeople on The Anesthesia Consultant include:

How Long Will It Take To Wake Up From General Anesthesia?

Why Did Take Me So Long To Wake From General Anesthesia?

Will I Have a Breathing Tube During Anesthesia?

What Are the Common Anesthesia Medications?

How Safe is Anesthesia in the 21st Century?

Will I Be Nauseated After General Anesthesia?

What Are the Anesthesia Risks For Children?

 

The most popular posts for anesthesia professionals on The Anesthesia Consultant  include:

10 Trends for the Future of Anesthesia

Should You Cancel Anesthesia for a Potassium Level of 3.6?

12 Important Things to Know as You Near the End of Your Anesthesia Training

Should You Cancel Surgery For a Blood Pressure = 178/108?

Advice For Passing the Anesthesia Oral Board Exams

What Personal Characteristics are Necessary to Become a Successful Anesthesiologist?

 

 

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Check out . . . THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.

KIRKUS REVIEW

In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.

Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.

Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.

Click on the image below to reach the Amazon link to The Doctor and Mr. Dylan:

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LEARN MORE ABOUT RICK NOVAK’S FICTION WRITING AT RICK NOVAK.COM BY CLICKING ON THE PICTURE BELOW:

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