What does a Certified Nurse Anesthetist do?

M.C. Huguelet

In the US, a certified nurse anesthetist is frequently responsible for some or all aspects of anesthesia administration among patients undergoing surgery or giving birth. She may work independently, delivering anesthesia to the patients of surgeons, dentists, or other health care professionals, or may act as an assistant to an anesthesiologist. Those who wish to become certified nurse anesthetists must complete an intensive period of study and training which can last for eight years or more.

A nurse anesthetist administering anesthesia before surgery.
A nurse anesthetist administering anesthesia before surgery.

The primary job of the certified nurse anesthetist is the delivery of anesthesia, an agent which temporarily blocks pain sensation by numbing a collection of nerves or inciting unconsciousness. Anesthesia can take many different forms, and is generally classified as local, regional, or general. The form chosen for each patient corresponds to the nature and invasiveness of the procedure to be performed.

A patient having a cavity drilled, for instance, will likely need only a local anesthetic, usually taking the form of a quick shot in the surrounding gums. Patients giving birth may opt to have an epidural, a form of regional anesthesia delivered to the spinal area to reduce pain during the birthing process. Those undergoing an invasive surgery, such as a tonsillectomy, may be given an intravenous general anesthetic so they lose consciousness for the duration of the procedure.

Normally, the job of a certified nurse anesthetist extends far beyond simply administering the anesthetic agent. She must first perform a thorough evaluation of her patient’s current state as well as his medical history to ensure that he can be safely treated with anesthesia. Before dispensing the anesthetic, she may also administer a topical numbing agent or a sedative.

Once anesthesia has been administered, the certified nurse anesthetist must remain at the patient’s side, monitoring his vital signs and organ functions. Should the patient experience anesthetic-derived distress, the certified nurse anesthetist must quickly decide how to correct the situation. After the procedure is finished, she continues to remain with the patient to ensure he successfully recovers from his anesthetic.

Generally, certified nurse anesthetists in the US are not required to work under supervision, though certain state or local laws may limit the reach of their duties. Some certified nurse anesthetists work independently, acting as the sole anesthetic administrator for health care professionals such as surgeons and dentists. Others may serve as assistants to anesthesiologists.

Training to become a certified nurse anesthetist can take more than eight years. Candidates generally must earn an undergraduate degree in nursing or a relevant field and become registered nurses. They must then complete at least one year of acute care nursing work. After this, they must enter a two- to three-year nurse anesthetist master’s program, during which they will study all aspects of anesthesia administration in detail. Once they have successfully completed this program, they must pass a national certification exam to officially qualify as certified nurse anesthetists.

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