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How to Become an Anesthesiologist Assistant

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Michael Imon is an assistant professor in the anesthesiologist assistant program at Nova University, where he has lectured since 2011. He has also taught in the anesthesiologist assistant program at Emory University. Michael earned his undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1971, and went on to pursue a master’s degree in biology at the University of California at Long Beach.

He began his career in anesthesiology as a student at Emory University in 1973. After earning his MMSc at Emory, Michael began working as an anesthesiologist assistant. He continued to work in the field while he studied acid-base transport across the intestinal epithelium at Emory University, eventually earning his PhD in 1980. Michael is a member of the American Academy of Anesthesiologist Assistants and he is certified by the NCCAA.

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What is an anesthesiologist assistant?

Anesthesiologist assistants, also known as anesthetists, work under the supervision of physician anesthesiologists to develop and implement the anesthesia care plan. They work exclusively within the care team environment as described by the American Society of Anesthesiologists. Anesthesiologist assistants are skilled allied health care professionals possessing a baccalaureate degree with a premedical background. They are trained extensively in the delivery and maintenance of quality anesthesia care and advanced patient monitoring techniques. They receive a complete didactic and clinical education culminating in a master’s degree.

What are some of the advances that have been made in training for anesthesiologist assistants?

Emory had one of the first programs training anesthesiologist assistants (AA). I was in the fifth class; there were 10 students in my class and 8 in the class ahead of me. Today at Nova University there are 48 students in each class. Most other programs have classes of comparable size. There have been many changes in anesthesia practice and the standard of care in the past 40 years. When I first started anesthesia pulse oximeters, capnography, laryngeal mask airways, the fiberoptic glide scope, and the light wand were all yet to be developed, not to mention the vast improvement in the anesthesia drugs that are now have available.

What is your favorite aspect of anesthesiology?

My favorite aspect of the profession is my ability to help others, whether they may be students, patients, anesthesiologists, or peers.

What is your least favorite aspect of anesthesiology?

Anesthesia has been called a profession with hours of boredom and moments of terror. During a long surgical case, when all is going well, there may not be much to do but vigilantly monitor the patient. At other times during massive blood loss or other tense situations, there can be chaos and pandemonium with personnel yelling and running everywhere. In these situations, it is especially important to remain calm, prioritize what needs to be done, and do it.

Are there common misconceptions about your profession?

Sometimes Anesthesiologist Assistants are confused with anesthesia technical assistants, who help clean and maintain anesthesia equipment; anesthesiologists; or certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs).

What is a typical day like for an anesthesiologist assistant?

During a typical day, an AA might change into scrubs, check to see which room or cases he or she will be assigned, check out narcotics for the day from the pharmacy, go to the room to perform a machine and equipment check, set the table and draw up drugs. Then go to see the first patient, introduce himself, review the anesthesia evaluation form, check the laboratory results and consents, interview the patient and answer any questions the patient may have. The AA will then help the circulating nurse transport the patient to the operating room, move the patient to the operating table, apply the monitor to be used during the surgical procedure, and call the anesthesiologist for the induction on anesthesia. The patient is induced, an airway established, and anesthetic agents are turned on and maintained for the duration of the procedure. During emergence from anesthesia, the anesthesiologist is again called, anesthetic agents are turned off, any drugs needed to reverse muscle relaxants, for post-op nausea or pain are given, and any airways are removed. When the patient is stable and breathing, he is transported to the recovery room. There the AA gives a report to the recovering nurse. After the AA returns to the operating room to clean up, recheck the anesthesia machine and set up new drugs and airways, he can go to see the next patient. This continues to the end of the day.

Is a graduate degree preferable to work as an anesthesiologist assistant, or can someone enter the profession with a bachelor’s degree?

A bachelor’s degree with a premed background is required to apply to AA schools, but a graduate degree or experience such as respiratory therapy is helpful.

What traits would help someone to be successful as an anesthesiologist assistant?

Anesthesiologist assistants should be of good character, have self-confidence, be able to “think on their feet” (multitask), have good or reasonable skill with their hands, and be able to study for and pass standardized tests.

What study tips would you give to a student to help him or her succeed in an anesthesiologist assistant program?

Successful students will have already acquired good study habits before applying to an AA program. In addition, it would be helpful to have studied anatomy, physiology, molecular biology, and pharmacology.

Do you think anesthesiology is a subject that can be studied online, or is a traditional class environment ideal?

Some subjects in anesthesiology can be studied online; however, the laboratories and clinical experience must be obtained in class or at a hospital.

What pieces of advice, or caution, would you offer to a prospective student of an anesthesiologist assistant program?

The AA program is not for everyone. The AA does perform some invasive procedures on patients. If you feel faint at the sight of blood, this career is not for you. The AA career is not without stress. Please consider the position carefully before you apply.

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