For such a highly specialized branch of medicine, anesthesiology is notorious for allowing its practitioners to rake in rather large yearly paychecks. To many people, anesthesiologists are just people who see patients right before a surgery to administer an anesthetic to make their surgical procedure as painless as possible.
Things are rarely simple in the world of medicine, of course, and in truth that generic picture doesn’t hold much water. Like all doctors anesthesiologists have to face many difficulties, including mountains of paperwork and steep malpractice insurance costs. Anesthesiologists put in a lot of work to their careers, and in thinking about them it’s best to know just what goes into this branch of medicine.
In this How Much Guide to the practice of anesthesiology, you’ll find all of the basic and essential information about what anesthesiologists do, including how much they make, what their hours are like, and how many people are working in the profession.
Do Anesthesiologists Bring in the Big Bucks?
When choosing a sub-specialty, many medical students undoubtedly have this consideration in mind, channelling the spirit of Jerry Maguire: “Show me the money!” Given that anesthesiologists have a big rep for being the big-money specialists, there’s an undoubtable luster to the job title. But is anesthesiology the money mill that it’s made out to be?
On the surface, yes. Consider this: the average salary in the United States — that is, across the entire board — is $44,600, according to CNBC. If you take a look at the salary distribution for anesthesiologists across a range of US states, you can see the following:
New Health Advisor lists anesthesiology in the top five of the top ten medical specialties for annual salary. Below is NHA’s top ten, with average salary next to each job description:
- Orthopedist ($421,000)
- Cardiologist ($376,00)
- Gastroenterologist ($370,000)
- Anesthesiologist ($358,000)
- Plastic surgeon ($354,000)
- Radiologist ($351,000)
- Urologist ($344,000)
- Dermatologist ($339,000)
- General surgeon ($317,000)
- Emergency physicians ($306,000)
Now, in looking at the statistics available for how much anesthesiologists make, it’s less helpful to look up averages sourced from anesthesiology salaries across a whole nation. One of the most important parts of the Wikiprofessional graph above is the listing of how many jobs are available in a given state. California has space for plenty of anesthesiologists — a predicted 6,800 by 2020. Those in Alaska, however, have to reckon with a meager 30 anesthesiologist posts, with no predicted increase in that amount by 2020.
If you’re open to moving around the country to find a job anywhere you can take it, even in remote, sparsely populated states like South Dakota, then you won’t be constrained by the availabilities of one market. But those who are geographically limited in where they look for their jobs — due to family, monetary, or other types of concerns — will need to tailor their expectations for an anesthesiology post to where they are expecting to live.
The numbers for a career in anesthesiology are good when it comes to money, but it’s important to remember the expenses that come along with being a doctor. One can look to the salaries in the aforementioned top ten paid doctors list and come to the conclusion that doctors are well paid, but it’s important to remember what it costs to be paid that much — it isn’t easy. Bringing home the bread as a doctor requires all of the following, maybe even more:
- A Lengthy Period in School: Learning medicine doesn’t just happen in medical school. First, one needs to get a bachelor’s degree in some pre-medical or medical-adjacent field, with enough coursework sufficient to prepare him or her for the rigors of medical school. Then comes the matter of medical school itself, a period of four years that anyone will tell you takes a lot more than a strong will to get through. After medical school comes a residency, a period of time between three and seven years wherein a newly minted medical student works under the supervision of an attending physician in a hospital. (Doctors do not have to ultimately work at the hospital where they did their residency, but if they can make good in-roads at their residency hospital they could end up staying there long-term.) Those who decide to go into a field of specialization (rather than working in general medicine) might also take on a fellowship specific to that specialization. All told: between 10 and 15 years will pass before a doctor is done with her schooling proper. That’s a long time, which many people might not want to take in looking for their career, even if they are drawn to the nice paychecks that doctors get.
- An Expensive Education: According to Bloomberg, in 2013 the average cost for a full stint in medical school is $278,455 (private school) or $207,868 (public school). When one factors in that those students already likely have student debt from their undergrad, and that as residents those students will make only $40-50,000 per year, it’s safe to say that even with a good paycheck post-residency, signing up for the medical profession comes with a lot of risk on the financial end of things. For all the money doctors can earn, they’ve got to pay a lot for the privilege of a paycheck that size.
- Difficult Subject Matter: As Michael Crichton once wrote of his years as a medical student in his memoir Travels, “It is not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw.” Crichton is referring specifically to the physical difficulty of that process, but there’s also a challenge mentally in preparing for that activity and knowing how to properly perform it and other procedures. (It goes without saying that you can’t be squeamish about blood as a doctor.) Despite what infomercial salesmen or lottery tickets will tell you, there is no easy money in life, and earning the income made by experienced doctors requires a lot of mental stamina. You have to know a lot to bring home the gold.
To the last of the above three points, one might suggest: “Yeah, doctors have to know a lot, but anesthesiology is such a narrow field. Surely you don’t have to know as much as a more general doctor would, right?” A question like that makes a classic mistake: confusing specificity with shortage. That anesthesiologists (or any other specialized doctor) focus primarily on one area does not mean that their knowledge base is smaller; it just means it is more precise.
Remember: no matter the specialty, all doctors have to go through four years of medical school. In so doing, they gain a baseline level of knowledge, which on its own is ample. As doctors go deep into their specialities, they augment this knowledge. Given that medicine is an ongoing site of research, it’s impossible to say that in choosing a specialty, one is limiting her knowledge. Committing to medicine is committing to learning new things, even within a well-defined, specific area.
The knowledge required of anesthesiologists is not as specific as some might think. Here are some areas of expertise required of an anesthesiologist:
- Allergic Reactions: It sometimes happens that people cannot use a commonly prescribed anesthetic either at home or during a procedure because of an allergy to said anesthetic. In order to prescribe the right anesthetic, an anesthesiologist would benefit from knowing common allergy interactions with standard anesthetics. If an anesthesiologist keeps up on this information, s/he will know just what to do when a patient tells her/him about an allergy.
- Drug Interactions: Like any drug, anesthetic drugs interact with other drugs. An anesthesiologist can’t blindly administer an anesthetic without knowing a patient’s drug history, which involves knowing about other types of drugs beyond anesthetics. To be an effective anesthesiologist, one must know a lot about drugs prescribed for all kinds of ailments, not just pain.
- Surgery: A common task of an anesthesiologist is to administer pain drugs before, during, or after a surgery. In the course of fulfilling this task, anesthesiologists will undoubtedly come to learn some things about how surgery is performed, and how patients might respond to surgeries. This knowledge allows anesthesiologists to anticipate the needs of patients during surgeries, even if they are rendered unconscious.
Although medicine is broken down into sub-specialties, the human body is an interconnected thing. There’s no isolating any one part of the system and studying it as an abstract entity. In order to be a good doctor — whether in the field of anesthesiology, oncology (cancer), or radiology — one needs to have a developed understanding of the human machine as a whole.
An understanding like that is not hard to come by; it takes years of schooling and even more years of practice to really nail down. For that reason and many more, how much anesthesiologists make should come as no surprise to anyone. Anesthesiologists go through a real ordeal leading up to their professional career, and the challenges don’t disappear once their full-time career has begun. From new discoveries in the field to the burgeoning cost of medical malpractice insurance, anesthesiologists have a lot on their plate. Anyone in a position like that deserves to be amply compensated.