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.

Dermatology and anesthesiology are two medical specialties which offer lifestyle balance. Dermatology is consistently one of the most competitive residencies for graduating medical students. In a ranking of the most competitive medical specialties, dermatology ranked second, trailing only plastic surgery.  Dermatology was also ranked as the number-one specialty in terms of work-lifestyle balance. Dermatology is a high-paying medical specialty with almost no emergencies, weekend duties, or night call. Dermatologists can take weeks off work without losing their entire practice. Dermatologists perform procedures with their hands, including biopsies or the resection of lesions. Dermatologists have important roles treating common problems such as chronic acne or diagnosing life-threatening melanomas. Dermatology clinic is known for short visits and long lists of patients. If a patient has multiple medical comorbidities such as hypertension, heart problems, obesity, or sleep apnea, these issues are usually unrelated to the dermatology consultation. Hypertension, heart problems, obesity, and sleep apnea are problems for the patient’s internal medicine doctor, not for the dermatologist. A career in anesthesiology seems markedly different than a career in dermatology, because anesthesiologists frequently deal with acutely ill patients, middle of the night emergency surgeries, and complex anesthetics for open heart, brain, or neonatal surgeries. But one large subset of anesthesia work closely mimics the lifestyle of dermatology practice. Before you sign up for a lifetime as a dermatologist, consider the subspecialty of ambulatory anesthesiology.

Ambulatory anesthesiology is defined as the administration of anesthetics for outpatient surgical procedures, which are minor procedures which don’t require hospitalization. Most anesthetics in the United States are for ambulatory surgeries. In 2014 there were 11 million outpatient surgeries, which was 52% of the total number of surgeries. Outpatient surgeries include tonsillectomy, knee arthroscopy, shoulder arthroscopy, breast biopsy, hernia repair, rhinoplasty, hand surgery, foot surgery, nasal septoplasty, colonoscopy, and upper gastrointestinal endoscopy. These procedures are low-risk surgeries which don’t disturb a patient’s physiology in any significant way. Ambulatory surgery patients are prescreened to eliminate those with medical problems such as morbid obesity, severe sleep apnea, or unstable cardiac, respiratory, or neurologic diagnoses. An anesthesiologist practicing 100% in an ambulatory surgery center should have zero emergency anesthetics, zero weekend duty, and zero night call. 

The duration of training for an anesthesiologist and a dermatologist is identical. Both specialties require four years of college, four years of medical school, a one-year medical internship, and three years of residency training. For either specialty, if you graduate high school at age 18, you’ll be at least 30 years old when you finish training and are ready to begin your career. A significant amount of deferred gratification is required for both specialties. Your friends who went to work straight out of college will be at least eight years ahead of you in the game of life, and may have already accumulated a mortgage and 1.93 children during the years you’ve been working as a resident physician and memorizing massive quantities of medical knowledge. Anesthesia will never be as safe or predictable as dermatology.  Anesthesia residents are required to manage all forms of cases, including open-heart surgeries, neurosurgeries, trauma surgeries, Cesarean sections, and emergent chest or abdominal surgeries. Major complications are rare in outpatient anesthesia, but if one is inducing general anesthesia, then unexpected complications of airway, breathing, or circulation (the ABCs) can occur.

Both dermatology and anesthesiology are high-paying specialties. See the list below. The average salary for a dermatologist is $438,000 (7thhighest of all specialties), and the average salary for an anesthesiologist is 405,000 (11th highest of all specialties). 

Samuel Shem’s classic medical satire “The House of God,” followed a cadre of burned-out internal medicine residents through their internship year. At the end of the book, the residents reached the conclusion that their best futures were in the NPC—Non-Patient Care—specialties, which numbered six and only six: Rays, Gas, Path, Derm, Eyes, and Psych, that is: radiology, anesthesiology, pathology, dermatology, ophthalmology, and psychiatry. The main character in “The House of God” switched his specialty from internal medicine to psychiatry. In my career I switched from internal medicine to anesthesiology. Anesthesiology is not truly a “Non-Patient Care” specialty. Anesthesiologists very much care for patients every day. A key difference is that anesthesiologists care for each patient for a short and finite time. We don’t have to deal with a patient’s chronic problems over many years, as their internal medicine doctor must do. 

An experienced anesthesiologist may eventually land a fulltime job at an ambulatory surgery center (ASC), and at that point he or she may confine his or her career to a stable weekday life of outpatient surgeries, but this ascension to ambulatory-only anesthesiologist is not common. Most career anesthesiologists who practice in ambulatory surgery centers also continue to practice at a hospital. Most general anesthesiologists need to master both inpatient and outpatient surgeries.

Is it possible to jump directly from the completion of an anesthesia residency to a solely ambulatory practice, thus mimicking the lifestyle of dermatology? In the past, I’d say the answer was no. In recent years the lack of an adequate number of anesthesiologists has created a supply-demand situation in which outpatient surgery centers have insufficient numbers of anesthesiology staff. In some geographic markets, outpatient surgery centers may choose to hire young residents right out of training. I direct you to the recent employment ad below, which promises a salary of $385,000 to $4000,000 per year for an ambulatory anesthesiology job with “No nights, weekends, holidays, trauma, hearts, neuro or OB.”

If you’re interested in a quality lifestyle medical career with regular hours, weekends off, and few emergencies, add the option of ambulatory anesthesiologist to your list of possible choices. But to gain entrance to the Emerald City of ambulatory anesthesiology, you’ll have to walk a Yellow Brick Road through a challenging anesthesia residency first. In all probability, you’ll spend your early career doing some inpatient emergency anesthesia as well. But an eventual career in ambulatory anesthesiology is an outstanding option in which you can anesthetize patients on a  weekday schedule, spend weekends and evenings with your family, and turn the ringer off on your cell phone when you go to sleep at night.



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