Anaesthetists, like your surgeon, are medical specialists who have completed several years of medicine at university, internship and residency. They have then specialised in anaesthesia for a minimum of another 5 years. Having passed two exams set by the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists they are able to practice as specialist anaesthetists.
The anaesthetic training program in Australia is recognised as one of the most comprehensive, rigorous and respected programs in the world. Many Australian anaesthetists spend more than the required five years of training, either sub-specialising or obtaining other medical degrees or diplomas.
In terms of anaesthetic complications and outcomes Australia is arguably the safest place in the world to have an anaesthetic.
You are put into a state of unconsciousness for the duration of the operation. This is usually achieved by injecting drugs through a cannula placed in a vein and maintained with intravenous drugs or a mixture of gases which you will breathe. While you remain unaware of what is happening around you, the Anaesthetist monitors your condition closely and constantly adjusts the level of anaesthesia. You will often be asked to breathe oxygen through a mask just before your anaesthesia starts.
A nerve block numbs the part of the body where the surgeon operates and this avoids the need for general anaesthesia. You may be awake or sedated. Examples of regional anaesthesia include epidurals for labour, spinal anaesthesia for caesarean section and ‘eye blocks’ for cataracts.
A local anaesthetic drug is injected at the site of the surgery to cause numbness. You will be awake but feel no pain. An obvious example of local anaesthesia is numbing an area of skin before having a cut stitched.
The anaesthetist administers drugs to make you relaxed and drowsy. This is sometimes called ‘twilight sleep’ or ‘intravenous sedation’ and may be used for some eye surgery, some plastic surgery and for some gastroenterological procedures. Recall of events is possible with ‘sedation’. Most patients prefer to have little or no recall of events. Please discuss your preference with your anaesthetist.
Although most people think they are “asleep” during an operation, you are actually in a state of controlled unconsciousness. Your anaesthetist is there to monitor and control your level of unconsciousness to ensure you are unaware and free of pain during your operation. During this time your anaesthetist takes over care and control of all your major bodily functions such as blood pressure, breathing and fluid requirements.
Unlike some other countries where it may be an anaesthetic tech or nurse who remains with you, in Australia your anaesthetist remains at your side for the duration of your procedure until you are in the recovery ward, where your care will be supervised by a recovery nurse.
Anaesthetists are also highly trained in pain management, preoperative medical preparation and critical care services. They are experts in resuscitation and managing acutely ill patients. They are frequently the ones called to assist other doctors during cardiac arrests and trauma.