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How to Become a Critical Care Nurse

An in-depth look at the duties, responsibilities, schooling, requirements, certifications, job outlook, and salary expectations for today’s Critical Care Nurses

Female masked nurse

Critical Care Nurses are highly trained, competent, registered nurses who work in high-pressure situations where lives are consistently on the line. Every day they show up for work, their knowledge, skill, and quick-thinking abilities are put to the test and can routinely make the difference between life and death. This immense responsibility is often seen as a barrier to some aspiring nurses and a welcome challenge to others.

As seen throughout nursing, organization is a crucial skill for Critical Care Nurses, probably more so than any other type of nurse. A keen eye, attention to detail, alertness, and the ability to remain calm under pressure are other vital attributes required to become a Critical Care Nurse. These are the qualities that often set them apart from other nurses.

Critical Care Nurses play a vital role in healthcare, making it a highly demanding job both physically and emotionally, with endless highs and lows. Therefore, this specialization might not be meant for all aspiring nurses.

Due to the high level of skill and competence involved, experienced Critical Care Nurses rank amongst the highest-paid nurses in the country.

(Click here to see our full list of the highest paying nursing jobs in the U.S.).

Continue reading this career guide if you’re interested in specializing as a Critical Care Nurse. We will cover how to become a Critical Care Nurse and the specific duties, responsibilities, and salary* expectations for this vital profession.

Critical Care Nurse Definition

What Is a Critical Care Nurse?

Critical Care Nurses deal specifically with patients experiencing life-threatening or high-dependency conditions. The range of specialties in this demanding field includes coronary, pediatrics, burn-care, cardiothoracic, trauma, surgical, and high-risk nurseries. Critical Care Nurses work in conjunction with a variety of doctors, consultants, and physiotherapists to ensure optimal care for their patients. They assist during procedures, check vital signs, take blood samples, manage ventilation and life support systems, and order diagnostic tests. They also can administer medication and provide personal care such as bathing and dressing.

Critical Care Nurse: Job Description

What Does a Critical Care Nurse Do?

Critical Care Nurses provide vital care to patients in intensive care units (ICUs). Critical Care Nurses also perform various diagnostic tests, administer medications, and develop patient care plans alongside other healthcare professionals. They observe patients’ progress, record observations, and provide updates to attending physicians as necessary.

Critical Care Nurses administer care to patients who may be seriously ill, stroke and heart attack victims, and even gravely injured patients. A Critical Care Nurse treats any patient whose life is in danger.

Critical Care Nurse: Job Responsibilities

A Critical Care Nurse’s role comes with a long list of responsibilities that typically outweigh those of the typical nurse. Their patients’ lives hang in the balance every day, and the levels of required competence, duty, and responsibility can be overwhelming for some. Emotions and intensity can run high, and the pressure is unending. With that said, some nurses thrive in this type of environment. While the list of routine responsibilities may sound similar to other nurses, the critical nature of their work sets even the most mundane tasks apart from those of other nurses. These include:

1) Identifying patients’ needs and altering care plans as necessary.

2) Providing post-mortem care.

3) Performing approved therapeutic or diagnostic procedures.

4) Evaluating vital signs and laboratory data.

5) Administering blood and blood products and monitoring for signs and symptoms related to transfusions.

6) Administering medications intravenously, by injection, orally, through gastric tubes, or by other methods.

7) Advocating for patients’ needs and providing emotional support for patients and families.

8) Setting up and monitoring medical equipment and devices.

9) Monitoring patients’ fluid intake and output.

10) Monitoring patients for changes in status and indications of conditions.

11) Assessing patients’ pain levels and sedation requirements.

12) Assessing patients’ psychosocial status and needs.

13) Collaborating with other health care professionals to develop and revise treatment plans.

14) Collecting specimens for laboratory tests.

15) Compiling and analyzing data obtained from monitoring the patient and diagnostic tests.

16) Conducting pulmonary assessments.

17) Documenting medical histories and assessment findings.

18) Documenting treatment plans, interventions, outcomes, or plan revisions.

19) Identifying patients who are at risk of complications.

20) Prioritizing nursing care for critically ill patients.

21) Assisting physicians with procedures including bronchoscopy, endoscopy, endotracheal intubation, and elective cardioversion.

22) Ensuring that equipment or devices are stored properly after use.

23) Identifying malfunctioning equipment or devices.

24) Assessing family adaptation levels and coping skills.

25) Coordinating patient care conferences.

26) Participating in professional organizations and continuing education.

27) Participating in the development, review, and evaluation of nursing practice protocols.

28) Planning, providing, or evaluating educational programs for nursing staff, interdisciplinary health care team members, and community members.

29) Supervising and monitoring unit nursing staff.

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Critical Care Nurse Jobs

Where Do Critical Care Nurses Work?

Critical Care Nurses work in intensive care units and hospital emergency rooms and cardiac and even pediatric wards. They are also occasionally utilized at specific types of health care clinics.

Critical Care Nurse School & Certification

How Long Does It Take to Become a Critical Care Nurse?

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Critical Care Nurse?

The path to becoming a Critical Care Nurse requires comprehensive education and work experience. Being a Critical Care Nurse requires a talent for a variety of medical procedures and communication, management, and attention to detail. As with most nursing professions, becoming a Critical Care Nurse begins with becoming a Registered Nurse.

To first become licensed a Registered Nurse, prospects must complete an Associate’s Degree or Bachelor’s Degree and pass the NCLEX-RN examination. Becoming a Critical Care Nurse also requires earning either a Master of Science in Nursing or a Doctoral degree.

Here is a closer look at the necessary steps to becoming a Critical Care Nurse:

1. Earn a BSN Degree

Obtaining an accredited nursing degree is the first step towards becoming a Critical Care Nurse. Your BSN degree combines the fundamentals of nursing theory with actual hands-on clinical practice to develop knowledge of a wide variety of different medical procedures.

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN Certification Examination

After earning a bachelor’s degree, you’ll need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to earn your license and become a Critical Care Nurse.

(Click here to read our NCLEX-RN Exam Review & Study Guide).

3. Earn an MSN Degree

After passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and obtaining an RN license, you will need to pursue your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. MSN coursework is more advanced, building on the knowledge gained in an undergraduate program.

4. Get Certified by the AACN

Aspiring Critical Care Nurses will need to obtain certification from the American Association of College of Nursing (AACN). The AACN promotes and enhances health and safety by establishing and maintaining high standards of professional practice excellence through certification and re-certification of nurses caring for critically and acutely ill patients and their families. Certification exams include Clinical Judgment and Professional Caring and Ethical Practice criteria based on the Synergy Model, involving Advocacy/Moral Agency, Caring Practices, Clinical Inquiry, Collaboration, Facilitation of Learning, Response to Diversity, and Systems Thinking.

Critical Care Nurse Salaries

How Much Do Critical Care Nurses Earn?

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Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not explicitly report on wage statistics for Critical Care Nurses, Nurse Practitioners are generally seen as a valid comparison. These nurses make an average salary* of about $109,820.

However, Critical Care Nurse salaries in the 90th percentile can reach an average of $152,160 per year.

Top Employing States for Critical Care Nurses

Critical Care Nurse salaries can vary dramatically based on employer or location. For example, here are some of the top employing states for Critical Care Nurses.

State Average Salary
New York $122,250
California $138,660
Texas $115,440
Florida $101,510
Ohio $103,780

Job Outlook for Critical Care Nurses

Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also does not report the specific job outlook projections for Critical Care Nurses, they note that overall employment for Nurse Practitioners and other comparable nursing occupations is projected to increase by 45% through 2029, which is faster than the average for all occupations (4%).

Critical Care Nurse Careers

Are you ready to start your career as a Critical Care Nurse?

If you’re the type of individual who can juggle a wide range of responsibilities and is as comfortable working in high-pressure environments, the role of a Critical Care Nurse could suit you well.

If this sounds like you, rise up to the challenge and begin your journey as a Critical Care Nurse by earning your BSN degree at Eagle Gate College.