President of American Association of Nurse Anesthetists
In addition to the hard work they do every day, medical professionals often lead the charge in ensuring a better understanding of their industry and creating a better appreciation for the humble careers they have. At the forefront of advocacy for the Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) profession is the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA). Sharon Pearce, President of AANA, is one of the most respected and well-known names in the nursing field.
She represents over 48,000 CRNAs across the country and makes it her constant goal to ensure proper pay and due justice for those she is serving. The role of CRNAs in medicine is often overlooked as they provide the majority of anesthesia in the country. In her 23 years as a CRNA, Sharon has worked tirelessly to progress from working as a CRNA to become president of the North Carolina Association for Nurse Anesthetists, and now president of the national organization. She is a sweet, passionate, and hardworking individual who certainly lives up to the virtuous reputation of nurses. Social is extremely grateful for Sharon taking the time to talk with us about how she and those she works with are changing the face of medicine for medical professionals and patients across the country.
SM: What made you want to specialize in nursing?
SP: I knew pretty much all my life that I wanted to be a nurse. I had some health issues as a child and was hospitalized on numerous occasions. I had a great nurse who imprinted on me great care and when I was in second grade, I knew I wanted to be a nurse. More importantly, after I became a nurse I found out that nurses could give anesthesia. So, I immediately became interested in that specialty.
Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) were the first advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). We give anesthesia for every type of medical procedure that requires anesthesia, in every type of healthcare setting. Even more importantly, we are the frontline providers of anesthesia for our military personnel going all the way back to the Civil War. In fact, the first nurse documented giving anesthesia was on the battlefields of that war.
CRNAs deliver more than 34 million anesthetics each year in the United States, and are the primary providers of anesthesia care in rural America. In some states, CRNAs are the only anesthesia providers in nearly 100% of rural facilities. In North Carolina alone, there are more than 2,400 CRNAs, making it one of the top four states in terms of numbers for CRNAs.
SM: How has the CRNA practice in Raleigh changed in the last few years?
SP: Healthcare professionals in general, including CRNAs, are dealing with some societal issues such as high rates of obesity and the fact that people are living longer. Thus, we’re seeing a change in our patient population. Healthcare needs to do a better job with preventative healthcare, but we’re adapting and things are gradually improving. But, we need to be a healthier group of people. We need to influence that change and encourage people to be healthier.
SM: Is there anything that you do specifically as a CRNA or as your association’s president to advocate preventative behaviors?
SP: The sad thing is that I’m only with a patient for a short period of time. I may get a few minutes with you before I put you to sleep. So, that’s not really an area in which our profession can affect much change just by virtue of the fact of how the process works. Mainstream nurses (those not identified as APRNs) have always been advocates of preventative healthcare for their patient population. I tell people all the time, if you want a physician’s care, you go to his office. If you want a nurse’s care, you go to the hospital. If every single nurse walked out of the hospitals in this country, these facilities wouldn’t run. Mainstream nurses are on the frontline of healthcare 24/7.
SM: What does it mean to go from state president to AANA vice president and now president?
SP: It’s a learning experience and a fantastic opportunity. Now I have responsibility for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, rather than just one state. We are a fairly large organization. There are about a hundred employees who work for our association. We are a very unique association in a couple of ways. One way is that we actually have a CRNA who is our Executive Director/CEO. The second way is that over 90% of all CRNAs belong to their professional organization. If you look at most other medical profession organizations, only about 50% of their members belong to their organization.
SM: What responsibilities do you have as president of AANA?
SP: I chair an 11-member board of directors. We provide oversight for all the activities of the organization. One of the biggest things our members view as a value to their membership is our advocacy. The AANA also has a Washington D.C. office, and our headquarters are in Park Ridge, Illinois. We also have our own insurance services.
SM: Are there any things your association is changing that will affect how CRNAs practice in Raleigh or the country in the near future?
SP: The reality is that healthcare is in flux right now. Things are changing. It’s a huge expenditure at this point. The system just can’t bear the load. CRNAs are cost effective, high quality providers and we have the same patient outcomes as our medical colleagues. There are basically two anesthesia providers: anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists. For nurse anesthetists, our education is basically the same as our medical counterparts. They come in with a degree in medicine and we come in with a degree in nursing. What we do is exactly the same. We provide the same service, more cost effectively.
CRNAs are a solution for some of the nation’s healthcare problems. I am often asked “Are you an anesthesiologist?” Then I have to educate them about who we are and what we do. In reality, patients are paying for the degree of the provider, not the degree of the care they receive because CRNAs do exactly the same things as physician anesthesiologists. I work alone, and I work in offices. I give anesthesia in plastic surgery offices, dental offices, podiatrists’ offices, GI clinics and many other places.
SM: When you’re advocating for CRNAs, what is your main goal?
SP: That we achieve parity and recognition for what we do and what we bring to the system, and to be able to practice to our full scope. Sometimes our medical colleagues are interested in not allowing us to practice to the fullest scope and they want to be able to control our practice and what we can do, which increases costs to the healthcare system. Often, a case does not require the patient to have both a CRNA and an anesthesiologist. Just as I’ve said, I’ve functioned alone for 10 years. There doesn’t need to be more than one provider.
SM: Have you seen an improvement in the way CRNAs are viewed?
SP: Well, it’s a continual battle. We are a nursing specialty that does the same thing as a medical specialty so sometimes there is discourse between the two groups. But we are seeing progress because we are being recognized by regulators and policy makers who understand that we bring value and do same thing, more efficiently, and less costly, which is really important in our overburdened healthcare system. So, yes we are making progress but not as fast as I’d like to be.
The take-home message is there has never been a better time to be a CRNA. There is a perfect storm brewing out there. We have the Affordable Care Act and we have millions of new patients entering the healthcare system who are going to need care. We need providers who are highly efficient, highly educated, and are good at what they do. We are all of those things. People are beginning to realize the benefit that APRNs bring to the system. I can tell you we’ve come a long way in gaining respect for the profession. Nurses are the number one trusted profession named in polls. The only year we weren’t in the top spot was in 2001 when firemen were named at the top.
SM: Are more people entering the nursing field?
SP: Yes, because it is a field where there are unlimited opportunities. You can move pretty much anywhere and you can get a job. You’re pretty much always guaranteed a job because people always need healthcare. So it’s a really good field to go into.
SM: What is your opinion of medicine specifically in the Triangle?
SP: Some of the most well-known and respected hospitals are right in the Triangle. You have Duke, Chapel Hill, and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. North Carolinians are very fortunate to have such high-quality healthcare right at their fingertips. That can’t be said for a lot of other places. Relative to anesthesia, there are 6 anesthesia programs in N.C. to prepare CRNAs.
SM: Is there anything that the public should know about CRNAs that they may not already be aware of?
SP: In many ways, we’re kind of an unknown. We take care of patients when they are at their most vulnerable—when they are asleep or not fully conscious, when they are undergoing a surgical procedure or delivering a baby—some of the most important times of a patient’s life. We stay by their side throughout their procedure, regardless of whether an anesthesiologist is involved in the case. We monitor their vital signs, adjust their anesthetic drugs, and make sure they are delivered safely to the recovery room. Our patients’ safety is our number one priority.
SM: Thank you for your time, Sharon! We are extremely grateful for your talk and appreciate the wonderful work you are doing. Best of luck to you!