Your anesthesiologist does more than you probably think

Aug. 20, 2019

Most patients—and many healthcare professionals—assume that anesthesiologists have one role: putting people to sleep during medical procedures. And while that’s certainly an important part of what anesthesiologists do, it’s only one part of their larger role as doctors in and outside of the operating room.

Perioperative care: An anesthesiologist’s involvement in a medical procedure begins long before they administer anesthetic to a patient. For every procedure, the anesthesiologist will review the patient’s medical history (including current health and medications) and determine the appropriate type of anesthetic based on the patient and the specific nature of the procedure. For example, a young child undergoing corrective surgery for a congenital heart defect will need a different type and amount of anesthesia than a full-grown adult undergoing spinal neurosurgery.

 Once the appropriate anesthetic and dosage are determined, anesthesiologists don’t simply administer the anesthetic and leave. They are present in the operating room for the entire procedure, monitoring the patient’s bodily functions, including heart rate and rhythm, breathing, blood pressure, temperature and fluid balance. Depending on how these functions change throughout the procedure, the anesthesiologist will make careful adjustments to the anesthetic, ensuring the patient’s comfort and safety throughout.

 After the procedure, anesthesiologists will help patients wake up and develop a pain management plan to help patients cope with post-operative pain.

Pain management: Perioperative pain is just one type of pain—anesthesiologists help patients manage pain across the medical spectrum. The National Institutes of Health reports that about 25.3 million adults report experiencing pain every day for 3 months, and nearly 40 million adults classify their level of pain as severe.

“Pain” is a broad term, and doctors typically categorize it in one of two ways: chronic and acute. Chronic pain is pain that persists for a long period of time, like recurring neck or back pain, and is sometimes associated with an underlying condition. Acute pain tends to come on suddenly and may be the result of an injury. Anesthesiologists specialize in both and use a wide range of treatments—including individual and regional nerve blocks, epidurals, steroid injections, and the careful and mindful use of opioid prescriptions—to minimize or eradicate pain.

Critical care & trauma response: Because anesthesia affects all organ systems, anesthesiologists need to be experts in all fields of medicine—not just anesthesia. As a result, anesthesiologists are the only doctors who need to have this broad base of knowledge and expertise—and this is particularly useful in critical care and trauma response.

Anesthesiologists are the only doctors who have a full array of medications at their disposal—they can grab and expertly administer the right medication in real time. In critical care and trauma response, these interventions often end up saving people’s lives.

I always tell my friends and family that if you have to pick one doctor to have around when you’re going to be very ill, it should be an anesthesiologist. We do so much more than help people sleep through procedures—our work depends on expertise across the medical spectrum. 

About the Author

Armen Chalian, MD

Dr. Chalian attended medical school at UCLA and did his residency at the University of Southern California Medical Center. He joined Allied Anesthesia in 1993; since then, he has handled more than 20,000 cases there. Dr. Chalian currently specializes in anesthesiology for pediatric, obstetric, neurology and orthopedic patients, as well as chronic pain management. Previously, he specialized in anesthesia for pediatric and adult open-heart surgery.