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By India Mackinson

Heart surgery is complicated, and every person in the operating room plays an indispensable role in its success. One evolving role is the anesthesia technologist, who, alongside doctors and nurses, prepares and maintains technological equipment for surgery, ready to tackle any challenge to make sure the procedure runs smoothly.

“Even on TV, you’ve seen what an OR looks like,” said Gail Walker, an anesthesia technician and manager of anesthesia support at UNC Health Care. “The anesthesiologist takes care of patients, but they use machinery to do it with. If there’s ever a glitch or a problem, they can’t divert their attention from that patient.”

“That’s what we’re often used for: to help troubleshoot problems so their focus doesn’t move.”

While essential in ensuring patient safety, advancements in anesthesia technology and North Carolina’s growing population have created a shortage of qualified anesthesia technologists at hospitals throughout the Research Triangle and beyond, putting a strain on hospital staff.

To address the need for anesthesia technologists, Durham Technical Community College will launch a new anesthesia technology program in the fall in partnership with the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, the UNC School of Medicine and UNC Health Care.

“Durham is considered the city of medicine. We serve two major tertiary care hospitals: UNC Health Care and Duke Health,” said Melissa Oakley Ockert, dean and department head of health technologies at Durham Tech. “As a community college, I feel it’s a huge responsibility for us to provide top-notch health care workers to those institutions and their clinics.”

Local option

The new program will be the only one of its kind in North Carolina and one of only 11 approved programs in the United States offering the associate degree required for an anesthesia technologist certification. Besides Durham Tech, the nearest American Society of Anesthesia Technologists and Technicians-approved program is in Baltimore.

The program provides instruction in airway management, equipment and supplies, pediatrics, anatomy, physiology and more.

Walker took the first anesthesia technician certification exam in 1996, which accepted two years of work experience in place of an associate degree. The technician-level certification exam was retired in July 2015. Now, as anesthesia technologies advance and anesthesia support staff gains more recognition, only the more rigorous technologist certification is available.

“It was a vastly different world back then. Technology wasn’t near what it is today,” Walker said. “Back in the day, if there was a problem with an anesthesia machine, you could just slide in a new one. You can’t do that anymore. Things are way too complicated. There’s systems now. Things are interconnected.”

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Anesthesia technologists’ responsibilities in and out of the operating room include maintaining anesthesia equipment, assisting at the patient bedside, setting up patients’ monitors, placing intravenous lines, opening sterile supplies and providing airway management equipment — all necessary for patient safety, Walker said.

A growing need

North Carolina’s growth means more patients and a rising demand for health care workers — including anesthesia technologists — to care for them. The state ranks 12th in the nation for population growth, adding some 277,000 residents in the Triangle alone between 2010 and 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“All the hospitals in the area are excited to hire new anesthesia techs,” said Dr. Chris Howard, medical director for anesthesia technology at UNC Health Care. He helped create the Durham Tech program.

Walker, who has been an anesthesia technician at UNC Health Care for 25 years and also helped launch the program, watched the need develop firsthand.

“As the department has grown and technology has grown, the anesthesia support staff has not been able to keep up,” Walker said. “On the job training isn’t sufficient anymore for this type of an environment. You need a formal classroom setting to teach this stuff.”

After the management of anesthesia technicians and technologists moved from UNC Medical Center Surgical Services to the UNC School of Medicine Department of Anesthesiology last July, anesthesiologists, physicians with specialized training, and anesthesia support staff began to work together to take on understaffing.

“Being short-staffed in any hospital is not uncommon, so this is not a unique situation to anybody in health care,” Walker said. “We’ve been very fortunate over the last few years. We’re doing well, but we need to do better.”

Howard reached out to Ockert at Durham Tech last summer. With Walker’s help, the three designed and launched the program within one year.

The program

Students who complete the program at the Durham Tech Orange County Campus will earn an associate in applied science degree and be eligible to take the ASATT National Certification Examination.

The program, designed for working professionals, primarily consists of evening and online classes.

“Those that are interested in the health care field and especially the operating room, it’s a great path for that compared to a nursing degree,” Howard said. “You have to do one semester of class work, and then you start your clinical rotation and actually [will] be in the operating room in a big hospital.”

The projected starting salary for a certified anesthesia technologist is $36,000 to $55,000 annually, according to ASATT. Between the open positions at UNC Health Care, Duke Health and WakeMed, there’s a strong job market for anesthesia technologists, Howard said.

The position also serves as stepping stone to other health care-related jobs.

“We’ve had multiple anesthesia techs move on to other positions in the hospital,” Howard said. “A few of them have went on to medical school to become anesthesiologists.”

Ockert hopes to enroll 15 to 20 students in the inaugural class.

“Working with Dr. Howard is really an example of how a health care agency and a community college can work together to solve issues we want to improve,” she said. “It’s the perfect example of the power and strength of that partnership and what we can do for our community.”

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India Mackinson

India is one of our summer interns in 2018. She's a rising senior at UNC Chapel Hill, who is majoring in environmental studies and getting a minor in visual communication.

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