Pediatric Anesthesiologists Enjoy a Bright Future

The future is bright for pediatric anesthesiologists. Keeping kids comfortable during and after surgery means big bucks for those who occupy these positions.

An anesthesiologist is the person who puts patients to sleep before surgery. He or she is responsible for monitoring patients' heart rates, blood pressures, heart rhythms, body temperatures, body fluid levels and breathing patterns in the operating room.

People who need surgery often have other medical conditions. The anesthesiologist has to be aware of a lot of things. What medicine is the patient regularly taking? How will the anesthesia affect that medicine?

With pediatric anesthesiology, the focus is on a much tinier person. Administering the right amount of the proper anesthesia is crucial.

"The challenge is much more technical with pediatric anesthesiology," says Dr. Lawrence Roy. He is head of pediatric anesthesiology at a children's hospital and chair of a university pediatric anesthetics program.

"I've operated on infants that were between 400 and 500 grams. There's a real art to it when the patient is that small."

The trick, says Roy, is to be able to usher a child into an operating room and make sure that the experience is not a bad one for the child.

Dr. Ronald Stephen is a Missouri-based pediatric anesthesiologist who is retired. He agrees that anesthetizing children requires a slightly different approach.

"You have to know exactly how drugs react in situations with kids," Stephen says.

Right now, pediatric anesthesiologists don't require any special certification beyond that of a general anesthesiologist. That's four years of residency after graduating from medical school and receiving an undergraduate university degree.

But Roy says that children's hospitals look for people with special experience and credentials. That is, they look for people who have spent a good chunk of their residence time working with kids.

"A pediatric anesthesiologist has to be a little sharper," Stephen adds.

The director of pediatric anesthesia at the University of Kansas Medical Center is Dr. Ronald L. Torline. He says he gets about 100 applications for the 15 or so spots up for grabs in his program.

He says that as health care becomes more and more specialized, the demand for pediatric anesthesiologists will creep up. In the last five years, graduating residents of his department have had 100 percent job placement. But he concedes that there are only so many students that can be trained properly in one year.

"A lot of experts say that fluctuations in the market that have pushed many medical students towards primary care will result in a glut of specialists over the next few years," Torline says. "It's starting to turn around now, and I think it'll turn even more drastically. The job market is always going to require anesthesiologists, but soon it'll require more."

So it's likely that the field will grow, but the growth won't be particularly huge.

Part of the reason, says Torline, is that while smaller hospitals might handle a variety of children's cases, in most cases they'll continue to defer to the large children's hospitals centered in large American cities. But it is possible that a few smaller hospitals might add pediatric anesthesiologists, he concedes.

Torline acknowledges that recruiting is quickly becoming an important part of anesthesiology, especially if suspicions about shortages of medical specialists prove true.

"You've always got a lot of people thinking primary care is where it's at," Torline says. "That poses problems."

Roy thinks that TV shows like ER have glamorized primary care. But another problem, he says, is that students don't learn anything about anesthesia until their fourth year. By that time, he says most medical students have chosen their fields and have left anesthesiology in the dust.

He says that a movement has been initiated at his university to introduce first-year students to anesthesiology, when their minds are still open to the field.

"After all," Roy says, "anesthesiology is a unique opportunity because you see everything in it. It's the only specialty that crosses all boundaries: obstetrics, surgery, pediatrics."

Stephen has the following advice for young people interested in pediatric anesthesiology: "Have a wonderful time. If people are interested in getting into the field in high school, they should be interested in non-medical things to give yourself a wide breadth of knowledge."


The American Society of Anesthesiologists
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Opportunities in Anesthesiology
Lots of information on careers in general anesthesiology

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