Critical care nursing is a complex and challenging nurse specialty to which many registered nurses (RNs) aspire. Also known as ICU nurses, critical care nurses use their advanced skills to care for patients who are critically ill and at high risk for life-threatening health problems.
When a patient suffers a heart attack, stroke, shock, severe trauma, respiratory distress or other severe medical issue, it is vital that they receive immediate and intensive nursing care. Critical care nurses are adept at providing such care in settings where patients can be given complex assessments and treatment.
Specific critical care nurse duties and responsibilities can include:
Critical care nurses may also care for pre- and post-operative patients. In addition, some serve as case managers and policy makers, while others perform administrative duties.
Critical care nurses must first be registered nurses (RNs) with experience in general patient care. Because of the complexity of patient care involved in this specialty, many employers hiring critical care nurses can show preference to applicants with Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degrees. Some nurse education programs offer courses in critical care, but many practitioners learn through field training in a hospital setting.
Many critical care nurses choose to earn the Certified Critical Care Nurse (CCRN) designation offered through the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN).
Critical care nurses must be proficient in a wide variety of high-level nursing skills. They need to be experts in evaluating intensive care patients, administering care, recognizing complications and coordinating with other members of the critical care team. Successful critical care nurses also excel at interpersonal communication, leadership, strategic planning, critical thinking and decision-making.
According to May 2016 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for a critical care nurse was $68,450. The bottom 10% of critical care nurses earned an average of $47,120 a year, while the top-10% of ICU's earned $102,990 annually. Because of their specialized nature, advanced education and daily responsibilities, critical care nurses may have higher earning potential than their traditional RN counterparts.
Because salary potential and career opportunities may vary depending on location, employer, education, experience and other factors, prospective students are encouraged to conduct independent research to determine actual earning potential.
Critical care nurses work in emergency rooms, critical care wards, walk-in clinics, doctor offices and other healthcare settings. Because patients are treated around the clock, critical care nurses are usually required to work rotating shifts that include days, nights, weekends and holidays. The job can be physically demanding, as well, requiring standing, lifting, bending and stretching.
Rapid advances in technology and healthcare have made it possible to save more patients and help them return to health. As a result, critical care nurses are often in demand across the country. In some areas, they are needed to fill acute staffing shortages. If you’re an RN looking to advance your education and broaden your career opportunities, critical care nursing could be the right specialty for you. Get started toward earning your BSN degree by applying for Villanova University's RN to BSN online program.