A career in anaesthesia

Anaesthetists are specialist doctors who administer different types of anaesthetic to make a patient unconscious and pain free during an operation or procedure. This involves the use of a complex range of drugs and highly technical equipment to monitor the patient’s condition throughout an operation. The anaesthetist is responsible for pain management after surgery and assessment of a patient’s medical condition prior to surgery to ensure they are fit for surgery.

Anaesthetists train for five years to obtain their medical degree and registration and a further five to seven years working as a registrar in a hospital, gaining practical experience and completing postgraduate exams before qualifying as a specialist anaesthetist. Specialist training includes managing all types of anaesthesia, a wide knowledge of general medical conditions, intensive care, trauma management and resuscitation, and the treatment of pain.

Each year about 45 trainees are employed in major secondary and tertiary hospitals in New Zealand. Completion of specialist training and exams enables vocational registration as a specialist anaesthetist.

Anaesthetists are supported in the operating theatre by anaesthetic technicians, nurses and perfusionists (trained health professionals who operate heart-lung machines during surgeries that require heart-lung bypass).

Anaesthetists who work in public hospitals are all employed by District Health Boards. Employment at private hospitals is undertaken after an anaesthetist is granted a ‘right to practise’ at the institution, and employment is typically on a casual basis and under an independent employment contract (not as a salaried employee). GPs or rural hospital doctors with additional training in anaesthesia may also work under the supervision of a qualified specialist anaesthetist.

Salaries for full-time qualified specialists vary between $115,000 and $190,000 depending on seniority and frequency of on-call or emergency cover, as well as other factors (2009). Salaries for anaesthetists in training vary between $87,500 and $116,000, depending on the same factors (2009). Anaesthetists working in private practice may earn more than an equivalent public hospital practice.

There are also academic and research employment opportunities for anaesthetists through the Medical Schools at Auckland and Otago universities, and veterinary anaesthetists, who specialise in animal anaesthesia.

Assistants to the anaesthetist

In operating rooms, or other areas where an anaesthetic is given, the NZSA strongly supports the presence of a trained anaesthesia assistant, whether an anaesthetic technician or registered nurse assistant to the anaesthetist.

Anaesthetic technicians work in the operating room with the anaesthetist and help to prepare and maintain equipment for an anaesthetic and to assist the anaesthetist to provide safe anaesthesia.

An anaesthetic technician does a two to three year (depending on an individual’s entry qualifications) hospital-based training course with distance learning which provides the academic component of this diploma or graduate certificate course. Anaesthetic technicians need to complete the Diploma in Applied Science (Anaesthetic Technology). This three-year extramural course is available through the Auckland University of Technology.

More information is on the  New Zealand Anaesthetic Technicians’ Society  website.