What is a Critical Care Nurse

What is a Critical Care Nurse

Critical care nursing is a specialty of the nursing profession that deals with helping critically and acutely ill patients, as well as their families. Critically ill patients are at high-risk for life-threatening health problems and often require advanced and intense nursing assistance.

Primary Role of a Critical Care Nurse

The primary role of a critical care nurse is patient advocate. Because they typically work in high-intensity situations, critical care nurses must rely on a specialized set of skills and experience to provide care both to patients and their families. The American Association of Critical Care Nurses has outlined a series of patient advocacy guidelines, which include:

  1. Respecting and supporting the rights of the patient and the patient's family
  2. Respecting the beliefs and values of the patient
  3. Monitoring and safeguarding the patient's quality of care
  4. Supporting the decisions of the patient and the patient's family
  5. Serve as a liaison between the patient, the patient's family and supporting health care professionals

What is a Critical Care NurseWhat Does a Critical Care Nurse Do?

As a critical care nurse, your tasks typically include monitoring patients for changes and development of potential complications, evaluating patients' vital signs, advocating for family support and assessing patient pain levels. Other common tasks may include dealing with sedation needs, documenting patients' medical histories, evaluating laboratory results and administering medications.

To be an excellent critical care nurse, you need a set of essential skills. These skills often include listening well, communicating clearly, reading comprehension, compassion and critical thinking. You must also have sound judgment and decision-making abilities, be able to solve complex problems and have a desire to learn. While most critical care nurses work in conjunction with a critical care team, you can still expect to spend a great deal of time alone with patients and their families.

Critical Care Nurse Employment

Because critical care nurses often are involved in life-or-death situations, they must thoroughly know and understand the workings and complexities of the cardiovascular, pulmonary, nervous, renal, gastrointestinal, endocrine, hematologic and immune systems. Critical care nurses should also possess expertise with various medical equipment. In day-to-day operations, a nurse may use cardiac and hemodynamic monitors, defibrillators, ultrasound equipment and more.

Critical care nurses generally do not work a typical 40-hour week. Because the job involves continuous patient monitoring, they often work nights, weekends and holidays. They may also need to work 12-hour shifts. Critical care nurses most often work in critical or intensive care units (ICU) at hospitals. They may also work in operating rooms and emergency departments, helping doctors and other nurses with critical cases.

Critical Care Nurse Certifications

The American Association of Critical Care Nurses offers a wide array of certifications. These seven certifications include:

  • CCRN: Adult, Neonatal and Pediatric Acute/Critical Care Certification
  • PCCN: Progressive Care Nursing Certification
  • CMC: Cardiac Medicine Subspecialty Certification
  • CSC: Cardiac Surgery Subspecialty Certification
  • ACNPC: Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Certification
  • CCNS: Adult, Neonatal and Pediatric Acute Care Clinical Nurse Specialist Certification
  • CNML: Nurse Manager and Leader Certification

Critical Care Nurse Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)*, the nursing profession should continue to experience significant employment growth well into the future. The BLS notes job growth for registered nurses, the occupation category that encompasses critical care nurses, is expected to increase by 22 percent between 2008 and 2018, a rate much higher than the average for all other occupations. In 2009, the median annual wage for registered nurses was $63,750. This equals a median hourly rate of $30.65. It is important to note that salary varies depending on location, employer and experience, but, generally, with additional experience and certifications, salaries may be higher.

The job can be rewarding as you see your patients improve and know that you're making a difference. At the same time, it also can be physically and emotionally stressful and tiresome, which sometimes leads to burnout. However, with a nursing shortage on the horizon and a growing number of patients requiring critical care, the future looks promising for this nursing profession.

Resources for Critical Care Nurses:


*Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Registered Nurses, on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm

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