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Critical Care Nurse: All You Need to Know

Posted August 3, 2020

Choosing a nursing specialty can be tricky. You have to decide what type of work environment best suits your personality and skillsets. In general, critical care nurses tend to be assertive, independent, detail-oriented, persistent, critical thinkers, and intense! The ICU requires nurses to think and act not only quickly, but accurately too. If you are interested in taking your nursing career down the critical care lane, let’s walk through the details to get you there. 

This article contains:

What is a Critical Care Nurse

How to Become a Critical Care Nurse

Responsibilities of a Critical Care Nurse

Job Outlook and Salary for Critical Care Nurses

What Is a Critical Care Nurse?

male critical care nurse in blue scrubs tying his face mask onto his face

A critical care nurse plays a vital role in the overall care and well-being of critically ill patients. Critical care nurses are dealing with patients that have serious and quite possibly life-threatening illnesses. Therefore, their role is to execute the patient care plan and make quick decisions based on the patients’ current status. In the world of critical care, the patient’s health can change very quickly, so the nurse needs to adapt to each situation at hand with a clear head and a kind heart. 

How to Become a Critical Care Nurse?

You’ve decided that critical care nursing is the ticket for you, so now what?! There are a few steps you need to take in order to land your dream job in the ICU. 

Receive Your Nursing Degree

First and foremost, you need a degree in nursing! Do your research and find a college or institution that offers a nursing program. You can decide to get an associate’s degree in nursing or a bachelor’s degree. However, it’s important to note that many hospitals prefer to hire candidates that received their bachelor’s degree. It’s probably in your best interest to shoot for the stars and achieve that bachelor’s degree right away!

As you approach your last year of schooling, seek out opportunities for a Nursing Student Externship. This experience will allow you to assist RNs in the critical care unit and see first-hand how this world works. If you are unsure of how to find an externship opportunity, reach out to one of your nursing instructors for guidance. Also, if you are looking for an opportunity at a specific hospital, you can search the “job opportunities” section of their website. Regardless of how you find the opportunity, you’ll be happy to have this experience under your belt. 

Take and Pass the NCLEX Exam

Once you have graduated from your accredited nursing program, you will be ready to take the NCLEX exam.  Try not to stress too much about the exam, and remember that your studies in college have prepared you for this test. To schedule your exams, visit the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.  

You will have six hours to complete the exam, so be sure to set your own pace and take time to answer each question.  If you do not pass the exam on the first try, you can take it again.

Obtain State License

Each state requires practicing nurses to have proper licensure.  You must contact the Board of Nursing in your specific state to ensure you meet all requirements needed to receive your license.

Certifications or Credentials 

If you are looking for additional knowledge and certifications within the critical care field, you can use the American Association of Critical Care Nurses as your guide. Certain hospitals may require different credentials depending on the critical care unit you work on. However, it’s quite common that you will need the following certifications:

  • BLS (Basic Life Support)
  • PALS (Pediatric Advanced Life Support), and/or 
  • ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support)

Responsibilities of a Critical Care Nurse

critical care nurse in blue scrubs assisting patient in their bed

ICU nurses are responsible for the constant monitoring and care of patients with life-threatening medical issues. Usually, patients are admitted into the intensive care unit due to a serious accident, organ failure, trauma, acute illness, or extensive surgery. Critical care nurses must be highly skilled to handle intense and life-threatening medical situations. These patients require constant monitoring and attention – both physically and emotionally as well. 

No one wants to land in the critical care unit or have a family member admitted into one. So when this happens the situation is very emotional for both the patient and their loved ones. More often than not, the critical care nurse acts as the liaison between the patient and their family members. This can be a challenging task, especially when the situation is looking grim. However, the ICU RN has the unique experience to bring care, comfort, and support during a dark time. The impact a critical care nurse has on a patient and their family will make a lasting impact on their hearts. 

Job Outlook and Salary for Critical Care Nurses

The future looks bright for ICU RNs! According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for registered nurses is set to increase by 12% from 2018-2028. This percent increase is much faster than average; therefore, your decision to become an ICU RN might be your best one yet! On average, the median annual salary for a critical care nurse is approximately $72,541/year. However, there are many factors that contribute to your actual take-home pay, which include: geographic location in the United States, type of facility, education level, and years of experience. 


Deciding to become a critical care nurse is a big decision, but one that you’ll never regret. You get the opportunity to care for patients and their families in some of life’s most difficult times. You’re their hope, guide, educator, caregiver, and most importantly the advocate that keeps them going. Never lose sight of the profound impact you have on the lives of your patients and their families. Your ability to show compassion and genuine care will never be forgotten. 


Resources

https://bsntomsn.org/2015/are-you-cut-out-to-be-an-icu-nurse/
https://www.healthcare-administration-degree.net/faq/what-is-a-critical-care-nurse/
https://www.registerednursing.org/specialty/icu-nurse/
https://www.americantraveler.com/travel-nursing-blog/icu-nursing-salary-job-description-duties
https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm
https://nursejournal.org/critical-care-nursing/critical-care-nurse-careers-salary-outlook/

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