What Does a CRNA Do?

Jul 29, 2020
Rachel Nall, RN, MSN, CRNA

A Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) is an advanced practice nursing specialty that takes nurses from the bedside to the head of the bed, primarily to administer anesthesia to patients undergoing surgery. More than 43,000 CRNAs practice in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What are the typical responsibilities of a CRNA? 

The responsibilities of a CRNA depend upon the care setting where they practice. For example, some CRNAs have their own practice, where they provide anesthesia independently at a hospital or physician’s office. Others work collaboratively in an anesthesia care team (ACT) model, which a physician anesthesiologist leads. 

CRNAs provide anesthesia in the following settings:

  • Labor and delivery
  • Pain management clinics 
  • Surgery 
  • Trauma stabilization 

Some of a CRNA’s responsibilities include:  

  • Conduct pre-anesthesia assessments and order laboratory and diagnostic studies as needed before a procedure
  • Prepare and enact an anesthesia plan
  • Perform airway management skills, such as intubation
  • Monitor patients throughout surgical procedures
  • Navigate any emergent or unexpected complications that arise
  • Plan for and perform an emergence (wake-up) of a patient
  • Perform regional anesthetic techniques, such as epidurals for labor

CRNAs do all this (and more) in a variety of healthcare settings. 

doctors and nurses in operating room performing surgery nurse anesthetist CRNA

What should nurses entering this specialty expect to encounter? 

To enter a nurse anesthesia program, a nurse must have their bachelor’s of science in nursing and work at least one to two years in an intensive care unit setting. They then must complete their graduate education

By January 1, 2022, all nurse anesthesia programs will be doctoral ones. Most programs will be at least three years -- some may be more. After rigorous clinical and classroom work, a student nurse anesthetist must pass a national certification exam. 

Day-to-Day as a CRNA

Even if a CRNA works in a practice that performs similar procedures all day (such as a dentist’s or ophthalmologist’s office), no two days are alike because every patient is different. Each day, a CRNA is assigned to different procedures and selects the best anesthetic plan for each case, taking into consideration a patient’s medical history and the procedure. 

outside of medical surgery building crna nurse anesthetist

What are some benefits of working as a CRNA? 

I love knowing I’ve made my patients as comfortable as possible during what can be a very stressful time in their lives. I value that CRNAs work very autonomously and are able to select, prepare, and perform anesthesia plans based on their skills, knowledge, and experience. 

In addition to the nature of the work, CRNAs are compensated for the time and schooling they put in. The mean annual salary for a CRNA is $181,040, one of the top salaries in nursing. (Yes, it is possible for a CRNA to retire wealthier than a doctor!)

What are some not-so-great parts about working as a CRNA? 

We have a saying about being a CRNA: “Anesthesia is 90 percent smooth sailing, 10 percent terror.” The potential for terror and your ability to respond quickly and effectively are the major stressors in a CRNA’s life. 

I work as a CRNA in a Level I trauma center. I can spend a morning providing anesthesia for a cardiac bypass surgery, then go to the children’s hospital for surgery on a NICU baby, and finally finish my day doing anesthesia for a trauma situation. The potential to step into many varied and often-stressful situations is the challenge, but also the reward. 

My advice if you’d like to become a CRNA

Pursuing this profession requires experience and academic commitment. When you’re a CRNA, you hold a patient’s life and comfort in your hands. You’ve got to have commitment to your studies and skills. You also need great stress management abilities that help you handle the often-challenging situations you may find yourself in. 

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