Blake Tongson

Blake Tongson, anesthesia resource coordinator at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. (August 5, 2013)

You might be surprised to learn that you can work in an operating room without going to medical school, and that many hospitals will train you for a career as support staff to doctors and nurses. A career as an anesthesia tech gets you in the operating room and lets you become part of a critical-care health team without requiring you to become a doctor.

Job requirements

Working as either an anesthesia technician or a higher-certified anesthesia technologist, you’ll perform a variety of tasks, including routine supply checks, cleaning equipment, reviewing patient’s medical histories, preparing, setting up and monitoring the machines, drugs and instruments used during surgery, waking patients after surgery and monitoring their recovery. You’ll be in the operating room during surgery, wearing scrubs as you assist doctors and nurses.

Anesthesia technicians offer basic support to anesthesiologists and nurses, with anesthesia technologists providing more advanced services during surgery, such as monitoring equipment and patient airways. They work in hospitals, clinics and private-practice offices.

"The bulk of the job is assisting an anesthesiologist or other anesthesia providers in the operating room during surgical procedures,” says Blake Tongson, Anesthesia Resource Coordinator at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “The other main responsibilities include cleaning and maintaining equipment, and stocking supplies.”

Anesthesia techs work full time and may be on call evenings, weekends and holidays to respond to emergencies. Techs at Northwestern Memorial have fairly stable work schedules, with the same shifts from week to week and some after-hours on-call responsibilities, according to Tongson.

Training needed

To become an anesthesia tech, you have several options. You’ll need at least a high school diploma before you begin working at the first level, or as an anesthesia technician.

“You don't need to be certified to acquire a position in a hospital,” says Tongson. “At Northwestern, we have a solid training program that we put techs through to make sure they're competent and comfortable and can handle the workload. We like to pick bright, motivated people who have a desire to go into something further in health care.” The typical training period for an anesthesia technician is six to nine weeks, depending on the student’s progress, according to Tongson. "If you're concerned about not having any previous medical knowledge or training, we have prepared our training program for people like that."

You can earn certification after you’ve practiced as an anesthesia tech for at least two years or have graduated from an accredited two-year anesthesia tech program. The first level of certification requires sitting for and passing an exam administered by the American Society of Anesthesia Technologists & Technicians. After your earn your Certified Anesthesia Technician (Cer.A.T.) designation, you can work toward earning a Certified Anesthesia Technologist (Cer.A.T.T.) designation after two more years of experience.

Tongson points out that this field is one of the few that requires professionals to practice or train for two years before getting certified. In other disciplines, you must be certified first before you begin practicing. After graduating with a degree in human physiology, Tongson enrolled in Northwestern Memorial’s anesthesia tech training program, but chose not to get certified. He has still been able to move into management, and said that unless an employer requires it, certification is not necessary for many techs.

Job outlook

With baby boomers living longer lives, health care in the United States will continue to be a growing industry. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of all surgical technologists will increase by almost 20 percent through 2020. Salaries and benefits will vary based on your geographic location, employer, level of training and years of experience. For example, according to Healthcare-Salaries.com, Chicago is one of the six highest-paying markets for anesthesia technicians, with average pay of more than $36,000. Indeed.com posted in July 2013 that salary offers for anesthesia technologists were 9 percent higher in Chicago than in the rest of the country, with an average salary of $43,000.

“Most people get started in this profession by having an interest in health care, then browsing hospital and career placement websites,” says Tongson. “They read the job description, find it interesting and apply. Two of the best ways to find anesthesia tech jobs include researching hospital employment websites and networking with people you know in the health care field.

"Many of our ATs will be exposed to health care, really enjoy the opportunity to give back to patients and the health community, and then they'll decide they want to go onto something more complicated, such as nursing or even medical school."