Choosing Your Medical Specialty: Anesthesiology

June 28, 2021 | Claire Gagne


There are many possibilities when it comes to choosing your medical specialization and there's a lot to consider. Will you enjoy the work? Is it rewarding?

doctor looking at heart monitor in page

This new series “Choosing Your Medical Specialty" will help you learn more about each specialty and explore which one best matches your values, interests, and abilities.

Most people think an anesthesiologist just puts patients "to sleep." But when you're an anesthesiologist, you're in charge of managing patients' pain and safety, before, during, and after surgery.

"We literally take patients' lives into our hands," says Dr. Dolores McKeen, Chief of IWK Women's and Obstetric Anesthesia at IWK Health Centre in Halifax and president of the Canadian Anesthesiologists' Society. "We take control of all aspects of patients' body functions — heart rate, breathing and consciousness."

Here's what life is like in this challenging but rewarding medical specialization.

A typical day as an anesthesiologist

Most often, anesthesiologists work in the operating room, although it's also possible to work in areas like chronic pain clinics, labour and delivery, the ICU or pre-operative assessment clinics.

You can expect a day in the operating room to start as early as 7:30 a.m., and you may work on anywhere from three to seven surgeries a day, explains Dr. McKeen. Typically you'll work on the same type of surgery throughout the day — for example, if you're assigned to an orthopedic list, you'll do all orthopedic surgeries that day, like knee and hip replacements. If you're assigned to an ENT (Ears, Nose, Throat) list, you'll work on surgeries like tonsillectomies and thyroid surgeries.

Some anesthesiologists do teaching and research on top of their clinical work. Dr. McKeen, for example, works two days per week in the operating room and also does research and administration. As a full professor, she spends two days a week writing research papers that get published in medical journals and she also spends time working on hospital and university committees.

With a subspecialty in obstetric anesthesiology, she also works on a birth unit to provide labouring moms pain relief with epidurals and provides anesthesia for C-section deliveries.

Who is the best fit for anesthesiology?

"This specialty is good for students who love physiology and pharmacology — we give a drug and we see instant results, such as increased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, or taking away pain," says Dr. McKeen.

Being an anesthesiologist also requires a lot of hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity to do complex technical procedures, often under intense time pressure, like putting breathing tubes airways, putting catheters in veins deep in the neck and using an ultrasound machine to locate large nerves and inject local anesthesia to freeze an entire limb for surgery.

While parts of anesthesiology are predictable, being an anesthesiologist means that you sometimes have to care for critically ill patients in life-threatening situations. "This requires being able to act quickly, handle a lot of pressure and to diagnose and make decisions in extremely stressful, fast-paced situations," says Dr. McKeen.

You also should be prepared to work long hours. "Most of my anesthesia colleagues work 50 to 60 hour weeks," says McKeen. "We also often work at least one weekend per month and do a lot of time on call — sometimes staying up all night at a hospital working emergency surgeries throughout the night. Most anesthesiologists do this at least one weekend per month and often two to four nights per month."

What does it take to become an anesthesiologist?

Becoming an anesthesiologist typically takes four years of undergrad, four years of medical school, and five years of post-graduate training (1 year of basic clinical training and 4 years of Royal College-approved training).

If you want to do subspecialty training, like obstetric anesthesia, cardiac anesthesia or pediatric anesthesia, then add on another one to two years.

How much does an anesthesiologist make per year in Canada?

It's a medical specialty worth considering, as anesthesiologists are one of the most in-demand specializations in Canada. The average gross salary for an anesthesiologist is $431,000/year.

Read related story: 20 Most in-Demand Specializations in Canada

Why consider specializing in anesthesia?

You may think as an anesthesiologist your interaction with patients would be minimal, but you do play a critical role in their medical care. "We meet patients 20 minutes before we put them to sleep by inducing general anesthesia," says Dr. McKeen. "It's a huge responsibility."

The demand for anesthesiologists is expected to increase in the future as "almost 40% of doctors already working in the field are nearing retirement."

Many anesthesiologists also say the specialization comes with rewards. "We also provide care during the happiest times, such as the birth of a baby. It's is truly a privilege to be a part of this time in people's lives."

Read related story: What to Consider When Choosing a Medical Specialty

Additional resource:

Canadian Medical Association – Anesthesiology Profile

Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada – anesthesiologist training requirement

Canadian Anesthesiologists' Society (CAS)

This article originally appeared on the RBC Healthcare - Advice & Learning