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.

Do you need an anesthesiologist for a colonoscopy?  The answer is:  it depends. It depends on 1) your health, 2) the conscious sedation skills of your gastroenterologist, and 3) the facility you have your colonoscopy at.


1)  YOUR HEALTH. The majority of colonoscopies in the United States are performed under conscious sedation.  Conscious sedation is administered by a registered nurse, under specific orders from the gastroenterologist.  The typical drugs are Versed (midazolam) and fentanyl.  Versed is a benzodiazepine, or Valium-like medication, that is superb in reducing anxiety, sleepiness, and producing amnesia.  Fentanyl is a narcotic pain reliever, similar to a short-acting morphine.  The combination of these two types of medications renders a patient sleepy but awake.  Most patients can minimal or no recollection of the colonoscopy procedure when under the influence of these two drugs.  I can speak from personal experience, as I had a colonoscopy myself, with conscious sedation with Versed and fentanyl, and I remembered nothing of the procedure.

If you are a reasonably healthy adult, you should be fine having the procedure under conscious sedation.  Patients with high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, obesity, mild to moderate sleep apnea, advanced age, or stable cardiac disease are have conscious sedation for colonoscopies in America every day, without significant complications.

Certain patients are not good candidates for conscious sedation, and require an anesthesiologist for sedation or general anesthesia.  Included in this category are a) patients on large doses of chronic narcotics for chronic pain, who are tolerant to the fentanyl and are therefore difficult to sedate, b) certain patients with morbid obesity, c) certain patients with severe sleep apnea, and d) certain patients with severe heart or breathing problems.

2)  THE CONSCIOUS SEDATION SKILLS OF YOUR GASTROENTEROLOGIST.  Most gastroenterologists are comfortable directing registered nurses in the administration of conscious sedation drugs.  Some, however, are not.  These gastroenterologists will disclose this to their patients, and recommend that an anesthesiologist administer general anesthesia for the procedure.

3) THE FACILITY YOU HAVE YOUR COLONOSCOPY AT.  Most endoscopy facilities have nurses and gastroenterologists comfortable with conscious sedation.  Some do not.  The facility you are referred to may have a consistent policy of having an anesthesiologist administer general anesthesia with propofol for all colonoscopies.  If this is true, they should disclose this to you, the patient, before you start your bowel prep for the procedure.  A facility which always utilizes general anesthesia means that you, the patient, will incur one extra physician bill for your procedure, from an anesthesiologist.

I refer you to an article from the New York Times, which summarizes this phenomenon in the New York region:

One last point: If the drugs Versed and fentanyl are used, there exist specific and effective antidotes for each drug if the patient becomes oversedated. The antagonist for Versed is Romazicon (flumazenil), and the antagonist for fentanyl is Narcan (naloxone). If these drugs are injected promptly into the IV of an oversedated patient, the patient will wake up in seconds, before any oxygen deprivation affects the brain or heart.

Propofol, however, has no specific antagonist. Propofol only wears off as it is redistributed out of the blood stream into other tissues, and its blood level declines. A propofol overdose can cause obstruction of breathing, and/or depression of breathing, such that the blood oxygen level is insufficient for the brain and heart. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates that a Black Box warning be included in the packaging of every box of propofol. That warning states that propofol “should be administered only by persons trained in the administration of general anesthesia and not involved in the conduct of the surgical/diagnostic procedure.”

Anesthesiologists are experts at using propofol. I administer propofol to 99% of my patients who are undergoing general anesthesia for a surgical procedure. Anesthesiologists are experts at managing airways and breathing. Individuals who are not trained to administer general anesthesia should never administer propofol to a patient, in a hospital or in an outpatient surgery center.

I serve as the Medical Director of an outpatient surgery center in Palo Alto, California. We perform a variety of orthopedic, head and neck, plastic, ophthalmic, and general surgery procedures safely each year. In addition, our gastroenterologists perform thousands of endoscopies each year. I review the charts of the endoscopy patients as well as the surgical patients prior to the procedures, and in our center, approximately 99% of endoscopies can be safely performed under Versed and fentanyl conscious sedation, without the need for an anesthesiologist attending to the patient.

If you have an endoscopy, ask questions. Will you receive conscious sedation with drugs like Versed and fentanyl, or will an anesthesiology professional administer propofol? You deserve to know.



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