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.
phone 650-465-5997

There are Two Laws of Anesthesia, according to surgeon lore. They are:

  1. The patient must not move.
  2. The patient must wake up (when the surgery is over).

Surgeons work with physician anesthesiologists, with certified nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), or with an anesthesia care team that includes both physician anesthesiologists and CRNAs. Most surgeons’ comprehension of what anesthesiologists are doing is limited. Most surgery residencies have zero months of anesthesia training out of their sixty months of total residency. No matter who supplies the anesthesia services, to our surgical colleagues the critical requirements of anesthesia include 1. and 2. above. 


Physician anesthesiologists finish medical school and complete at a minimum four additional years of training. Surgeons finish medical school and complete at a minimum five additional years of training. There’s not much difference there. Anesthesiologists typically spend 90+% of their working hours in the operating room. A busy surgeon will spend 50% of their time in the operating room, and the other 50% in preoperative clinic, postoperative clinic, or rounding on patients in the hospital. Anesthesiologists win the tally for most operating room hours per week. Anesthesiologists take care of a patient’s heart, lungs, brain, and kidney function before, during, and after surgery. Surgeons perform a specific operation on one organ system, e.g. heart surgeons operate on the heart, orthopedic surgeons operate on a bone or a joint, and ear surgeons operate on ears.

Yet in all the surgical specialties, Two Laws describe the surgeons’ lofty expectations of anesthesia professionals:

  1. The patient must not move.
  2. The patient must wake up (when the surgery is over).

Physician anesthesiologists learn to perform anesthesia for all types of surgery, including cardiac, vascular, trauma, neurosurgery, pediatrics, eye, ear nose and throat, urology, and obstetrics. Physician anesthesiologists attend to patients of all ages, from newborns to centenarians. Physician anesthesiologists develop an extensive understanding of physiology as well as the pharmacology of hundreds of medications. Physician anesthesiologists regularly insert breathing tubes, venous catheters, arterial catheters, and stomach tubes, and inject regional anesthetic blocks into the spinal fluid, the epidural space, and learn nerve blocks of every major peripheral nerve.

Yet to our surgical colleagues, Two Laws describe an excellent anesthesiologist’s work:

  1. The patient must not move.
  2. The patient must wake up (when the surgery is over).

Let’s examine the Two Laws:

  1. The patient must not move. This Law is important because a surgeon must not be distracted by motion within the surgical field. If a patient coughs or bucks on the breathing tube, movement will occur. The surgeon must stop, sometimes for 60 seconds or more, while the anesthesiologist administers additional drugs to the patient. During these 60 seconds, it’s important that the surgeon sighs, crosses his or her arms, or otherwise expresses what a major inconvenience this loss of 60 seconds has been. Has a patient ever been harmed by an episode of brief movement? In the overwhelming majority of surgeries there is no harm whatsoever. In a perfect anesthesia world, patients will not move. But in the majority of anesthetics the patient is not chemically paralyzed, and it is possible for movement to occur. An overly deep level of anesthesia will help prevent movement, but has the adverse consequence of requiring a longer time to wake the patient at the end of the surgery. Which brings us to Law #2:
  2. The patient must wake up. When the surgeon finishes suturing the skin incision and  concludes the surgery, he or she will remove their gloves and gown and wait for the anesthesiologist to wake the patient. Modern anesthetics wear off quickly, and for most surgeries the duration of time from the end of surgery to the patient waking and talking is approximately 10 – 15 minutes. But these are minutes during which the surgeon must watch and wait. These are minutes during which the surgeon’s valuable time is ticking by, and seemingly wasted. In the overwhelming majority of surgeries, anesthesiologists successfully wake the patient and remove the breathing tube. At this time the surgeon can leave the operating room to meet with the patient’s family and discuss the successful operation. None of this could happen if the anesthesiologist was not competent with Law #2. 

If you’re a medical student considering a surgical specialty, it’s important you understand the Two Laws. If you become an anesthesiologist or a surgeon, you will be on one side or the other of the Two Laws. 

If you’re a patient, consider that it’s your surgeon’s job to cut and cure while it’s your anesthesiologist’s job to keep you from moving and to wake you up. Of course, your vigilant physician anesthesiologist will also assure that you’re safe, asleep, and unaware. Your vigilant physician anesthesiologist will also assure that you’re as stable and as healthy as possible after surgery. Trust your anesthesiologist  and realize that while these Two Laws come from the lips of surgeons, the genesis of the Two Laws perhaps occurred with a tongue in cheek. I’ve had excellent relationships with hundreds of surgeons over decades, and despite these Two Laws, the majority of surgeons are wonderful doctors and healers who are not condescending toward their anesthesia colleagues whatsoever.




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