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Should I Be an Anesthesiologist or a Plastic Surgeon?

by Beth Greenwood, studioD

Anesthesiologists and plastic surgeons are both physicians who spend much of their time in an operating room. Although their education is similar in many respects, there are a number of differences between them, such as job outlook, income, occupational risks, malpractice risks, specialty choices and the actual work they perform.

Education And Specialization

The standard medical education is four years each of college, medical school and residency. The paths of anesthesiologists and plastic surgeons diverge at the point of residency, as many plastic surgeons complete a general surgery residency and then an additional residency in plastic surgery. Either physician may also go on for an extended period of specialty training, called a fellowship. Both must be licensed in all states and most are board certified in their specialty. Plastic surgeons have two options for specialization: limiting their practice to the head and neck or to the hand. Anesthesiologists, on the other hand, can specialize in critical care medicine, hospice and palliative medicine, pain medicine, pediatric anesthesiology and sleep medicine.

Occupational Risks

Although both work in the operating room, surgeons have a higher risk of blood-borne disease -- such as hepatitis and HIV-AIDS -- because they are working with sharp instruments inside the patient’s body. Anesthesiologists, however, are more likely to be exposed to tuberculosis and anesthesia waste gases during intubation and anesthesia induction, according to an August 2006 article in Continuing Education in Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain. Surgeons stand for long hours while performing surgery, while anesthesiologists are able to sit down during the procedure.


Any physician may face the possibility of malpractice litigation, but surgeons in general are more likely to be sued than other specialties, according to a February 2012 article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Plastic surgeons constitute only 3.6 percent of malpractice lawsuits brought against surgeons, but their malpractice premiums were higher than average at $30,000 a year in 2011, according to a November 2011 article in Medical Economics." Anesthesiology malpractice premiums were considerably lower in 2009 -- the last year for which data is available -- at $21,480, according to a report from the University of Washington.

Salary And Outlook

Anesthesiologists are one of the medical specialties in relatively short supply; the specialty was among the top 20 of the most recruited specialties in 2011, according to nationwide recruiting firm Merritt Hawkins. The average annual salary of an anesthesiologist was $232,830 in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Plastic surgeons, however, earned a median salary of $409,772 in 2013, according to Cejka Search, a nationwide physician job search organization. The BLS notes that job opportunities for physicians and surgeons in general are expected to increase by 24 percent from 2010 to 2020. There are so many differences between the two medical specialties that your choice should be based on your personal preferences and individual situation.

About the Author

Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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