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About Anaesthesia

Patient Information on Anaesthesia

Here you will find information and resources for patients and the public about Anaesthesia and the role of Anaesthetists. This information is for prospective patients interested in learning general information about anaesthetists and surgical practices. 

Anaesthesia FAQ page

About Anaesthesia

About 250,000 surgical procedures are carried out with anaesthesia in NZ each year. This enables the patient to be unconscious and pain free during their operation. For information on anaesthesia safety, risks, or complications, view our Anaesthesia Safety page.

Anaesthesia Safety

FAQs About Anaesthetists

Anaesthetists are specialist doctors who administer different types of anaesthetic (depending on the patient and surgical needs) to make a patient unconscious and pain free during an operation or procedure. These range from a general anaesthetic where the patient is put into a state of unconsciousness throughout an operation to a local anaesthetic which causes numbness only at the site of surgery.  

This involves the use of a complex range of drugs and highly technical equipment to monitor the patient’s condition throughout an operation. The anaesthetist is responsible for pain management after surgery and assessment of a patient’s medical condition prior to surgery to ensure they are fit for surgery.  

Additional practices include administering regional anaesthesia, by utilising local anaesthesia to block major nerve pathways to a region of the body where the surgery is to take place and monitored sedation, a practice of utilising drugs to keep a patient comfortable and drowsy yet conscious enough to answer questions if need be. 

Besides the operating theatre, anaesthetists’ skills are widely used in patient care for radiology or radiotherapy procedures, post-operative pain relief and for acute or chronic pain management. Anaesthetists perform in operating theatres, intensive care units, accident and emergency departments, obstetric units, at dentists, and even in psychiatry units. They are also widely involved in teaching, training undergraduate medical students, and other healthcare workers including nurses, paramedics, and other postgraduate professionals. 

Careers in Anaesthesia 

Training period 

Anaesthetists train for five years to obtain their medical degree and registration and a further five to seven years working as a registrar in a hospital, gaining practical experience and completing postgraduate exams before qualifying as a specialist anaesthetist. Specialist training includes managing all types of anaesthesia, a wide knowledge of general medical conditions, intensive care, trauma management and resuscitation, and the treatment of pain. 

Each year about 45 trainees are employed in major secondary and tertiary hospitals in New Zealand. Completion of specialist training and exams enables vocational registration as a specialist anaesthetist. Anaesthetists are supported in the operating theatre by anaesthetic technicians, nurses and perfusionists (trained health professionals who operate heart-lung machines during surgeries that require heart-lung bypass). 

Employment options 

Anaesthetists who work in public hospitals are employed by District Health Boards. Employment at private hospitals is undertaken after an anaesthetist is granted a ‘right to practise’ at the institution, and employment is typically on a casual basis and under an independent employment contract (not as a salaried employee). GPs or rural hospital doctors with additional training in anaesthesia may also work under the supervision of a qualified specialist anaesthetist. There are also academic and research employment opportunities for anaesthetists through Medical Schools at Auckland and Otago universities. 

The NZSA held a webinar sharing ‘the day in the life of the Anaesthetist’. Access a recording of the webinar here.

Anaesthetists in New Zealand are among the most highly trained in the world.  After six years of Medical School, they are required to work at least a further two years as doctors in the hospital system. After completing eight years, two of these as a qualified medical doctor, they are eligible to apply for the Anaesthesia Training scheme. Most trainees will have worked as Emergency Doctors or other specialties before applying for the Training Scheme. 

Scheme selection 

Selection for the scheme is very competitive and highly sought after.  Training is at least five years of full-time work including two sets of exams; each requires at least 1000 hours of study. This will be on top of full-time work averaging 50-65 hours per week. 

During this five-year course the doctor is known as a Trainee Anaesthetist. In New Zealand’s hospital system, they will be Anaesthetic Senior House Officers (SHO) for the first year, and then Anaesthetic Registrars until fully qualified. At times a final year trainee may have the title of ‘Fellow’ while doing more subspecialty training. 

Anaesthetic Registrars have at least three years as a doctor, but usually many more. They will work under the direct supervision of a fully qualified Consultant Anaesthetist until they achieve a certain level of competency. As they become more capable, they are allowed more autonomy, although senior back-up is always close as for most medical specialties in New Zealand. 

During training 

During their five years of training the trainee is rotated to anaesthetising every surgical specialty, as well as being exposed to all areas of medicine. They are among the most expert doctors at resuscitation. In rural hospitals they will be called to any emergency in the hospital. At larger hospitals they may be called to emergencies requiring advanced airway support or urgent surgery. They are skilled in all aspects in the stabilisation of acutely unwell patients. Training in Anaesthesia is generally necessary for all doctors working in Retrieval Medicine (Flying Doctors), Intensive Care or Emergency Medicine. 

In operating rooms, or other areas where an anaesthetic is given, the NZSA strongly supports the presence of a trained anaesthesia assistant, whether an anaesthetic technician or registered nurse assistant to the anaesthetist. 

Anaesthetic technicians work in the operating room with the anaesthetist and help to prepare and maintain equipment for an anaesthetic and to assist the anaesthetist to provide safe anaesthesia. 

The Faculty of Clinical Sciences at AUT offers a Degree of Health Science in Perioperative Practice as the pathway to becoming an anaesthetic technician. Graduates of this programme can apply to register as an anaesthetic technician with the Medical Sciences Council of New Zealand (MSC)

More information on the New Zealand Anaesthetic Technicians’ Society website. 

History of Anaesthesia

Anaesthesia today is the culmination of many earlier discoveries and events. Surgical procedures are not a recent development. The skeletal remains of our earliest ancestors – the European Neolithic man – display evidence of possible surgery with surgical burr holes in the head. It is likely that such an event was to let out evil spirits. 


By the times of the Greeks and Romans, surgical procedures, albeit minor, were taking place. In ancient India, surgery was well advanced with the development of surgical instruments and even plastic surgical procedures (the surgical reconstruction of an amputated nose by the use a rotational flap) have been described. 



Around 900-1000 AD the Arabs in Andalusia were performing abdominal surgery. Islamic surgeons and physicians described many operations and medical procedures, including bladder stones and caesarean sections. The Islamic practice of medicine was a thousand years ahead of western medicine and much of what was claimed as new was a rediscovery of ancient techniques lost to the West. 

  • 500 BC Opium analgesia described by Hippocrates 
  • 1544 Ether synthesised   
  • 1596 South American arrow poison described   
  • 1628 Harvey describes the circulation   
  • 1665 First IV injection of opium into a dog   
  • 1776 Mesmer describes hypnosis   
  • 1772 N2O discovered   
  • 1796 Moore compresses nerves to produce local anaesthesia   
  • 1829 Cloquet uses hypnosis for mastectomy   
  • 1847 First veterinary treatment using anaesthesia, at Veterinary College London   
  • 1848 First anaesthetic death. Hannah Greener aged 15 died after chloroform administration (she had had a toenail removed)   
  • 1853 Invention of the hypodermic syringe and needle   
  • 1860 Cocaine isolated   
  • 1863 Popularisation of the use of N20   
  • 1867 Prof Lister introduces antiseptic surgery   
  • 1884 Demonstration of the local anaesthetic properties of cocaine on the cornea   
  • 1894 Harvey Cushing advocated the use of anaesthetic record charts   
  • 1898 August Bier introduced “spinal anaesthesia”   
  • 1917 Boyle’s anaesthetic machine, a N2O and O2 machine, first described   
  • 1920 Magill and Rowbotham developed endotracheal anaesthesia   
  • 1929 Fleming discovers that the mould Penicillium notatum inhibits bacteria   
  • 1930 The circle absorption system introduced by Brian Sword   
  • 1932 Association of anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland formed   
  • 1934 Thiopentone popularised; Australian Society of Anaesthetists formed   
  • 1939-42 An ear oxygen meter developed, and term oximeter coined   
  • 1940 Preparation of an active and concentrated form of penicillin described 
  • 1942 Muscle relaxants introduced 
  • 1945 The American Society of Anaesthetists formed 
  • 1948 The New Zealand Society of Anaesthetists formed 
  • 1951 Halothane synthesised   
  • 1952 Faculty of Royal Australasian College of Surgeons formed; Pin index system introduced   
  • 1973 Prototype pulse oximeter used clinically   
  • 1983 LMA use described   
  • 1984 Propofol in soya bean oil introduced   
  • 1987 First clinical use of desflurane 
Resources for NZSA members


As part of our commitment to Informed Consent, the Society produces an information leaflet about anaesthesia that may be given to patients before a medical procedure (sample copy available to view here).  

For Hospitals

Your Anaesthetic (last updated November 2018) is sold to hospitals on request and on a cost recovery basis. Costs: $1.10 per leaflet plus GST and freight for orders under 1000; $0.85 per leaflet plus GST and freight for orders 1000 and over. For orders or any queries regarding this leaflet, please email Deanna Smit at

The NZSA and ACC jointly developed a patient questionnaire assessment form over 10 years ago.  You can download the patient questionnaire for your practice here. 

An easy to print A5 sized flyer outlining for patients the temporary effects of Sugammadex on hormonal contraceptives and the precautions patients need to take. Click here to download a print ready version.