How to Become a Critical Care Nurse

10 Min Read Published September 20, 2023
Critical care nurse with gloves checking equipment with patient in hospital room

Critical care nurses work with patients who are facing life-threatening or potentially life-threatening issues. These vulnerable patients are generally found in hospital intensive care units and step-down units, trauma units and emergency rooms, and surgery centers and recovery rooms, though critical care nurses may also work in other settings. No matter where they work, critical care nurses rely upon their knowledge and training to help acutely ill patients.

A career as a critical care nurse offers the ability to work with either a wide range of patients or with patients suffering a specific type of condition such as those found in cardiac care units or neonatal intensive care. If you are considering becoming a critical care nurse, this guide will answer many of your preliminary questions about this rewarding career.

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What is a Critical Care Nurse?

Critical care nurses provide care for patients ranging from newborns to geriatric who have one thing in common: they are in dire physical condition or suffering from life-threatening medical conditions or injuries. In their role, these professionals apply highly specialized technical skills, assessing and monitoring their patients’ conditions in order to help restore them to health. In addition to providing hands-on bedside care, critical care nurses are also their patients’ advocates -- speaking for or representing them when necessary.

Because the patients they care for have such acute needs, most critical care nurses work with only one or two patients at a time and generally work in tandem with a team of healthcare professionals that includes physicians, other nurses, and allied healthcare professionals.

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What Do Critical Care Nurses Do?

In the course of their daily job responsibilities, critical care nurses provide one-on-one care to patients who have suffered serious illness or injury. They provide all typical bedside care with the enhanced responsibilities that are inherent in vulnerable patients who are suffering from extremely acute conditions. Their responsibilities include problem-solving and making quick decisions, as well as tasks such as:

  • Assessing patients as they are admitted to the critical care unit to identify their needs and create an appropriate care plan
  • Diagnosing patient illnesses and injuries
  • Monitoring, recording, and evaluating vital signs, including heart rate, respiratory rate, and body temperature
  • Tracking the operation and output of life support equipment, including heart monitors
  • Cleaning and bandaging wounds
  • Administering medications orally, through injection, via an intravenous or gastric tube, or through other methods depending on the patient’s needs and condition
  • Infusing blood products
  • Monitoring patients for reactions to medication
  • Responding to changes in the patient’s condition
  • Collaborating and communicating with other members of the care team
  • Providing education and guidance about the patient’s condition and care needs to both the patient and their family and caregivers
  • Acting as an advocate for the patient
  • Assisting families as they make important decisions regarding life support and end-of-life issues
  • Addressing the patient’s body after death, including making arrangements for transport to the morgue, hospital, or burial facility

Patients who are in critical care settings are experiencing physical and emotional stress, and so are their family members. Critical care nurses require understanding, patience, and empathy in the face of heightened emotions and are frequently called on to act with compassion when family members and loved ones are grieving. They also must face their own emotions in the face of patients who die or end up in debilitating conditions.

What is the Average Salary of a Critical Care Nurse?

According to Salary.com, critical care nurses earn an average of $82,053, but their earnings are dependent upon geographic location, experience, education, and more. 

Critical care nurses who work in major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, California, can earn more than $100,000 per year, and significant increases in compensation come with additional professional experience. 

Beyond their salary, critical care nurses are generally offered attractive benefits and perks, including paid vacation time and sick leave, personal ties, and coverage for health, dental, vision, and prescription insurance. Facilities in competitive markets may also offer childcare and tuition reimbursement as well as the opportunity to earn additional income by working overtime hours or shift differentials. 

How Do You Become a Critical Care Nurse?

Critical care nurses possess a combination of knowledge, skills, experience, and compassion. They must be able to make decisions on behalf of their patients quickly and with confidence, and this level of competence begins with their education. 

The total timeline expected for becoming a critical care nurse is:

  • 2-5 years to earn an ADN, BSN, or MSN degree
  • Pass NCLEX-RN exam
  • 2 years working in clinical patient care

Step 1: Become a Registered Nurse

Begin by becoming a Registered Nurse, and though this can be achieved by earning an Associate Degree in Nursing, most facilities today require a minimum of a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and prefer that candidates have their Master of Science in Nursing. After earning this degree, they will be required to pass the NCLEX-RN in order to receive licensure and work in the United States.

Step 2: Gain Experience

Then, you’ll need to work for at least two years, preferably with a wide range of patients, in order to ensure their comfort with a diverse range of conditions as well as their competence with critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication.

Step 3: Get Certified

Nurses who wish to establish themselves as specialists in critical care can demonstrate their knowledge by working in and demonstrating knowledge within several areas and pursuing certifications offered by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses. These include:

  • CCRN (Adult, Pediatric or Neonatal), providing direct care to critically ill patients
  • CCRN-K (Adult, Pediatric or Neonatal), influencing but not providing direct care to critically ill patients
  • CCRN-E (Adult), providing care for ill patients from a remote location
  • PCCN-K (Adult), influencing but not providing direct care to critically ill patients
  • CMC (Adult), providing care to critically ill cardiac patients
  • CSC (Adult), providing care to critically ill cardiac surgery patients
  • ACNPC-AG (Adult-Gerontology), providing care for very sick geriatric patients

These certifications will verify your qualifications and help you work as an RRT nurse, ICU nurse, or another type of critical care nurse.

Popular Online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Programs

Sponsored
Grand Canyon University

GCU's College of Nursing and Health Care Professions has a nearly 35-year tradition of preparing students to fill evolving healthcare roles as highly qualified professionals. GCU offers a full spectrum of nursing degrees, from a pre-licensure BSN degree to a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Purdue Global

At Purdue Global, discover a faster, more affordable way to earn your Nursing degree. Purdue Global is committed to keeping your tuition costs as low as possible and helping you find the most efficient path to your degree.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, but certain programs have state restrictions. Check with Purdue for details.

Western Governors University

WGU's award-winning online programs are created to help you succeed while graduating faster and with less debt. WGU is a CCNE accredited, nonprofit university offering nursing bachelor's and master's degrees.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Georgetown University
Nursing@Georgetown delivers Georgetown University’s MS in Nursing program online, preparing RNs with a BSN to pursue certification in an APRN specialty. Students can earn their degree in as few as 19 months.
Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, excluding NY and WA.

What are the Continuing Education Requirements for Critical Care Nurses?

Critical care nurses who have earned specialty certifications can demonstrate their dedication to excellence in their fields through the renewal of those certifications. These certification renewals are offered by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, and each has its own specific requirements. All encompass a broad range of learning topics and activities and require completion of Continuing Education Recognition Points in different categories of study and clinical practice hours spent working with acutely critical patients. Read more about continuing education requirements for nurses here

What is the Career Outlook for Critical Care Nurses?

In light of the national nursing shortage, nearly every type of nursing position is seeing tremendous demand, and critical care nursing is no exception. In fact, critical and acute care nursing sees a significant share of those currently in the workplace leaving the specialty area for a variety of reasons, making the need for these professionals even greater. 

According to statistics provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of registered nurses will grow by 6% between 2022 and 2032, and that growth is attributed to an increased emphasis on preventative care, increasing rates of chronic conditions, and the aging of the population. When you add to that the specific stressors driving critical care nurses to retire early, hospitals and other facilities are working hard to recruit additional staff.

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Where Can I Learn More About Becoming a Critical Care Nurse?

Critical care nursing is both a demanding career and a rewarding one. Nurses who are interested in learning more about the profession are advised to start by investigating the resources available through the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses’ website, where they can find information on clinical resources, continuing education, and the benefits of membership. Other organizations that support critical care nurses include the World Federation of Critical Care Nurses and the Society of Critical Care Medicine

You can also find articles of interest on the Nurse.org website, including:

From the first assessment of a newly arrived patient to providing end-of-life care, critical care nurses are an integral part of life-saving treatments and actions. They combine their education, empathy, experience, and skill to provide hands-on care for their patients’ physical needs and support and comfort for their emotional needs. The high stress of the specialty provides even higher levels of reward.

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Critical Care Nurse FAQs

  • What is a Critical Care Nurse?

    • A critical care nurse provides care for patients who are either recovering from a serious medical condition or procedure or who are in critical condition.
  • What does a Critical Care Nurse do?

    • Critical care nurses assess, monitor, and provide care for patients in extremely vulnerable conditions. They make essential decisions, administer medication, and operate life-support systems, as well as explain medical procedures and treatment to patients and their loved ones.
  • How much money does a Critical Care Nurse make?

    • Critical care nurse salaries vary greatly depending on geographic location, experience, education, and more. However, the national average salary for the position is $82,053, with a range of between $73,940 and $89,158.
  • What units are considered critical care?

    • Critical care settings within a hospital include the intensive care units, cardiac care, pediatric and neonatal intensive care units, step-down units following surgery, trauma, and burn units as well as emergency rooms. 
  •  How do I become a Critical Care Nurse?

    • Becoming a critical care nurse begins with earning an Associate's or a Bachelor's Degree in Nursing and passing the NCLEX to earn your registered nurse license. Then, you'll need at least two years of experience working as an RN. Earning a Master of Science in Nursing and certifications will make you a more competitive candidate for open positions.
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