PACU Nursing | Get to Know the Salary, Responsibilities, Job Descripton, Training, Career Opportunities

Photo Credit Katie Keegan, PACU nursing crew playing around

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected that there will be a boom in the PACU nursing career exceeding the average of 19% that has been estimated for RN jobs between 2012 and 2022. Indeed, there is no doubt that the future of post anesthesia care unit professionals looks bright particularly for those who are willing and ready to do what it takes to succeed. In brief, the job of a PACU nurse is to provide critical care to patients who are recovering from general, regional or local anesthesia. Sometimes the job involves monitoring vital signs and ensuring that patient comfort is maximized. But there is a lot more that goes into the diary of this nurse and that is why we have analyzed the career in greater detail in this article.


PACU Nursing Career Overview


Also known as recovery room nursing, PACU expertise is a vital part of hospitals, surgical centers, ambulatory care centers and other medical facilities. This specific career field, normally attached to operating suites, is generally designed to provide adequate care for patients in the recovery process. As such PACU nursing requires one to be highly trained in handling critical cases. After a surgical operation or procedure is performed, the patient is then handed over to a PACU.

At this time, the responsible nurse is expected to connect the patient to the necessary equipment for vital signs such as:

  • Cardiac monitoring
  • Pulse oximeter
  • Blood pressure
  • Oxygen supply

An in-depth understanding of how these devices work is essential. The patient is usually still under anesthesia and asleep. The nurse’s job is to monitor the patient until he or she is conscious and has stable vital signs. Then this nurse can send the patient to another unit or help discharge them home.


Because a major part of what PACU nursing does is to manage postoperative pain, the expert must be knowledgeable about pain management and proficient management of pain medications as well as helping patients recover from the effects of anesthesia. In addition, the nurse needs to understand how to care for a patient with postoperative complications such as vomiting and nausea.

Although they work directly under the instructions of physicians and surgeons, PACU nurses are expected to make their own decisions about what medications the recovering patient requires. PACU nursing is, therefore, a career that demands high levels of critical and quick decisions making. Missing a few details about the condition of the patients could be life-threatening.

Generally, these nurses are expected to know how to use patient-controlled epidural infusions, I.V. or analgesia pumps, as well as how to keep track of invasive tools such as central venous lines and arterial lines.

Another thing that the career of PACU nursing entails is the ability to care for pediatric patients who have undergone invasive procedures or cardiac patients who have had catheterization. Most importantly, one needs to possess a thorough understanding of post-recovery needs of patients.

How to Become a PACU Nurse?


  • Schooling

All PACU nurses are trained RNs. So basically, the career starts with the training of an RN which entails either an Associate’s degree in nursing or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). After classroom training and a few months of hands-on experience, one is expected to take the NCLEX-RN examination and pass.

  • NCLEX Examination

NCLEX-RN is simply an exam that seeks to confirm that the potential nurse has mastered all the training required to venture in the career. It is a tough and demanding exam where generally about 70% of examinees pass. It is after passing this crucial exam that one is eligible to apply for licensing.

  • On-Job Training

Once you get an RN license you may be required to first perform other nursing jobs. PACU nursing is seldom the first job for a graduate nurse. Ideally, the person who is referred for further on-job training to become a PACU nurse is one who is more interested in anesthesia-related care courses. In college, you can choose to focus on a perianesthesia course to boost your chances of being picked to pursue this competitive career.

  • Further Certification

Later on, you can seek to increase your career prospects after you complete 1800 hours of work experience. At this step, you can apply for a Certified Ambulatory Perianesthesia Nurse (CAPA) or Certified Post Anesthesia Nurse (CPAN) certification. These certificates are exclusively awarded by the American Board of Perianesthesia Nursing Certification Inc.

How Much Do PACU Nurses Earn?


Generally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that job openings for registered nurses will increase by 19% by 2022. Given the PACU nursing is listed as an RN career, and going by the most recent trends, it is safe to say that opportunities for these experts are fast-growing. The US population is aging fast and legislation has been passed to make healthcare more readily available to everyone. That paints a clear picture of a career that is on the rise.

But just how much do these noble men and women earn? Well, in 2012, the median salary for an RN was $65,470 which is equivalent to $31.48 per hour. Separate data shows that these experts can earn up to $40 or even $60 per hour for overtime services. Adding that to the possibility of a bonus and profit sharing and the total annual salary for a well-trained PACU nurse scales way above $88,000 per year. Some conservative estimates put $76,581 as the average salary of a worker with these skills.


Note that nurses can as well increase their income by working as travel nurses. Normally, employers have been seen to offer direct financial assistance for relocation and housing with long-term assignments for such experts. Another feasible option is to work as a per diem nurse – this involves accepting short-term shift work.

Other related specialties that an expert with PACU nursing skills can pursue include:

  • Operating room nursing – This involves caring for patients immediately before and after surgery.
  • ICU nursing – The specialty requires mastering rapidly changing technology involving patients in critical condition in an ICU setting.
  • Sub-acute nursing – These nurses provide long-term, intensive care to the elderly or those with brain injuries who require a 24-hour supervision.

Generally, PACU nursing is a boon for RNs who enjoy working in a challenging environment that offers numerous growth opportunities.

Why Some PACU Nurses Prefer to Take a Career in Travel?



PACU nurses can choose to become travel nurses as they seek to expand their career exposure and extend their horizons. Many traveling nurses get to visit different places as they provide their services and make new friends. Young nurses and those seeking lifestyle changes often elect employment as travelers in order to explore different parts and regions of the country. They use traveling as a platform to determine if life in a big city or a small town is more desirable.

Older, more experienced nurses choose to travel for similar reasons as younger ones with the only difference being that they are more laid back. If a nurse has grown children, pursuing a career in travelling nursing can offer a good opportunity to sample out different adventures which were not easily available. In some cases, a travel assignment can offer the nurse a chance to accept a short-term position close to distant members of the family or children.

PACU nursing can get even more exciting when you get the power to choose locales based on your personal hobbies. For instance, you may choose to work in a town that offers skiing if that’s your favorite pass-time. Alternatively, you can choose to head to the sunny Florida to offer your services as you enjoy a wonderful summer vacation.

Taking up a career in this facet of PACU nursing is a unique opportunity to experience different types of facilities without subjecting yourself to long-term commitments. Basically, travel nurses are in demand across the country. Most positions are for a period of 13 weeks although shorter assignments are often available. In some cases, if the match between the travelling nurse and the environment is a good one, an assignment extension or completion bonus may be given.

In a nutshell, PACU nursing practitioners who wish to travel are required to possess a minimum of one year’s on-job experience. Orientation for the program is generally recommended and the nurse if expected to be available for duty immediately. Some of the official duties this nurse may be expected to perform include.

PACU Nursing: Preoperative Duties



  • Managing patient’s admission processes to a hospital
  • Assessing the status of patients in pre-op to ensure accuracy of identification
  • To see to it that consents (operative and informed) are in order
  • Determining the procedure to be carried out and the best surgeon for the job
  • Noting down vital records of patients to ensure readiness for the surgical procedure
  • Initiating IVs and ensuring that the concerned patient and attending medical staff are informed about the procedure

Postoperative Duties of PACU Nursing



  • Changing bandages and dressing surgical wounds
  • Ensuring that the post-operative part of the body is clean and properly sanitized
  • Managing fluid and blood transfusions (including drawing specimens)
  • Recording body temperature and sedation levels
  • Undertaking intervention duties in case of post-operative emergencies
  • Determining when the patients are to be moved to recovery rooms
  • Initiation of patient education programs that ensure both patient and family are aware of the medications and procedures
  • Monitoring patients for any changes in conditions and reporting the same to doctors in charge
  • Making sure all PACU nursing obligations are carried out in accordance with the individual care plan
  • Adopting individualized care plans that are based on individual patient’s health condition
  • Making sure all relevant IVs are in place
  • Answering all questions asked by the patient and generally making sure the patient is comfortable
  • Assessing the patient’s health condition after the surgery has been conducted
  • Logging all findings in the individual patient’s files

Important Qualities for Succeeding in a PACU Nursing Job


The role of PACU nursing requires a careful combination of the skills of a medical practitioner and the expertise of an emotional healer. That is mainly because anyone who has just undergone a medical surgery can tell you just how traumatic, if not draining, it can get. For many people, being put under anesthesia during surgery makes things even worse. As such in addition to monitoring the patient, a PACU nurse should be able to reassure and comfort them as they awake from the effects of anesthesia. In order for a patient to move fully to responsiveness, the PACU is supposed to maintain a high level of focus.

Depending upon the facility the nurse chooses to work in, a day in the life of a PACU revolves around interactive with surgeons, therapists, and anesthetists. The nurse, therefore, needs great mental and physical stamina as much of the work involves walking up and about and remaining standing for long hours.

Most importantly, PACU nursing requires one to be an expert in pain management. They should be quick thinkers so that they can respond promptly to post-operative emergency cases.

It is important to keep in mind that these nurses provide care to recovering patients who may be confused or even agitated due to anesthetic disorientation. In order to survive through such times, it is important for the concerned nurse to be emotionally strong.

The urge to learn on the job is also an important quality that is demanded of a PACU nurse. One can choose to specialize in a specific type of service such as post-surgical cardiac care. There are also others who choose to specialize in caring for recuperating patients following a diverse range of procedures.


Also, depending on the roles of the facility that one works in, you may be required to provide care to newborns and pediatric patients. Using this experience, you can go ahead and specialize in providing post-operative care for pediatrics.

Last but definitely not least, PACU nursing demands that one should possess solid communication skills. Actually, good communication skills are the basis on which the entire nursing profession is founded on. A great nurse should, therefore, work on improving and polishing their listening, speaking and writing skills always. One should be in a position to follow complex instructions, without hitches that can easily throw the entire team into a disarray. As a PACU nurse, you also need to be so good in communication that you can simplify the complicated medical jargon to the patient and family members as you seek to comfort them before and after the operation.

A truly successful nurse is one who is able to remain on top of their game in ensuring their patients are understood clearly all the time.

Preparing for a PACU Nursing Job Interview



Regardless of your training, prowess, ability or PACU nurse resume, if you cannot perform well during an interview it can be difficult to land your dream job. The prospect of convincing the employer to hire you can be daunting, especially if you are not familiar with the interview process and the categories of questions they might ask.

But while it is not possible to predict exactly what will be asked, you can make a few educated guesses and research prior to the d-day. On the day of the interview, make sure you are dressed decently. This is the time to ditch the casual clothes you used to wear in your college days. Arrive early for the interview (at least 30 minutes before the recommended time) so that you can get adequate time to familiarize with the environment.

Handle each question with care keeping in mind that it can either make or break you. For instance, if you are asked a question like “Why should we hire you?” don’ just tell them how great you are. Back everything up with solid evidence that can demonstrate how you can perform if given an opportunity. For instance, in response to this particular question you can cite examples on how you:

  • Worked well within a team of different professionals
  • Communicated well with a multidisciplinary team
  • Remained calm under pressure
  • Used current evidence to improve your scope of nursing practice
  • Showed familiarity with drugs, contra-indications and side effects

Remember, irrespective of whether your area of specialization is occupational health, ER, ICU or community health, the key is to answer all interview questions about your career in the most specific way possible. Are you passionate about this career? Do you understand the latest trends in PACU nursing? What would you do if another healthcare assistant overturns decisions you had made? All these are common questions that are asked to see if you can really apply what the PACU nurse job description entails.


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