Nurses started as anesthesia providers during the Civil War, when they gave anesthesia to wounded soldiers on the battlefields. They’ve come a long way since then, with official credentialing as Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) starting in 1956.
Today’s CRNAs are master’s prepared advanced practice nurses who apply their specialty in just about all settings including hospital operating rooms and delivery rooms; ambulatory surgical centers; the offices of dentists, podiatrists, ophthalmologists, plastic surgeons, and pain management specialists; U.S. military, public health services, and Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare facilities.
According to the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA), CRNAs are the sole anesthesia providers in two-thirds of all rural U.S. hospitals, and the main providers of anesthesia to expectant mothers and also to men and women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
CRNAs work hand-in-hand with specialists such as surgeons, anesthesiologists, dentists, and ophthalmologists. Although the practice of administering anesthesia is the same, when it’s given by a nurse anesthetist, it is considered as nursing practice; when given by an anesthesiologist, it is considered as medical practice.
The AANA website states that CRNAs enjoy a high degree of autonomy and professional respect, and that they are well compensated for their complex level of responsibility.
How to get there
Sound like a good fit for you? According to the AANA, there is a specific pathway to follow. However, always check the particular program you are interested in because requirements vary.
Get a bachelor’s degree. A degree in nursing is ideal, but almost any other bachelor’s degree will suffice—as long as you’ve also attended some type of nursing program (such as an associate degree or diploma program). Having a high GPA helps.
Have a current RN license. There’s no way around this requirement—even physicians have to be licensed as RNs to enter a CRNA program.
Work in an acute care setting for at least one year. Most programs prefer candidates who have worked in critical care, operating room, or surgical specialties. One year is a minimum requirement—more experience makes you a better candidate.
Obtain your master’s degree from an accredited nurse anesthesia program. You may need to take the GRE before applying, so aim for a high score. Some programs offer a certificate CRNA program for people who already have a master’s degree in another nursing specialty.
Pass the national certification examination. If you’ve made it through the process above, you will be prepared to pass this exam and start your exciting career.
Where can I find a program?
CRNA programs have proliferated across the U.S. in response to demand. According to AANA, as of April 2011 there were 111 nurse anesthesia programs in 35 U.S. states and also in Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. You can expect to be in school for two to three years, depending upon individual program requirements.