When patients are brought to the hospital in a critical condition, it is the job of a critical care nursing professional to handle them and provide them with the much-needed support. Some of these patients could be unconscious, erratic or even close to death. As such, a critical care nurse is the one entrusted with the noble task of dealing specifically with human responses to life-threatening conditions. This individual must, however, be properly trained, experienced, disciplined and above all licensed to provide these services in a professional environment.

A day in the life of a critical care nursing professional revolves around caring for critically ill patients, some of them are highly vulnerable and unstable hence requiring vigilant medical care. Statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that there were over 500,000 trained nurses who were licensed to work in 2007.

Fast-forward to 2013, the number of critical care nurses had grown to 2,600,000 all thanks to an exponential growth of job opportunities. Actually, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the demand for this labor-skill will grow by 19% over the next 7 years. This being faster than 11% of all average job positions available today.



Who Is a Critical Care Nurse?


In a nutshell, critical care nurses are health experts who practice their career in medical facilities where patients require complex assessment, interventions, high-intensity therapies and continuous nursing vigilance. Experts serving in this field of practice rely upon specialized scientific knowledge and skills to provide patients with an environment that is humane and conducive to healing.

So, firstly, critical care nursing experts are patient advocates. They make sure the patient obtains necessary care and intervene when the best interest of the patient is in question.


In order to qualify to work in this career field, you first need to earn a diploma in nursing, a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) or an associate’s degree in nursing (AND). These are, however, just basic requirements and some states may impose a few more hurdles and exams for purposes of quality assurance.

Ideal candidates for this professional are highly organized individuals who are committed to continued learning. One should also have the ability to quickly gather and assess available information in order to respond to changing situations. Ability to work under extreme hours and go outside the ordinary in a fast-paced environment is also an important quality of the candidate.


Where Do Critical Care Nurses Work?

For those who would like to seek advanced training and specialize, there are three areas of specialization namely: adult critical care nursing, neonatal care, and pediatric care. The typical work environment for these nurses is:

  • In hospitals
  • In intensive care, cardiac and telemetry units
  • In emergency care rooms
  • In medical evacuation and transportation services
  • In nursing homes and outpatient clinics


50 per cent of these spend most of their time in an intensive care unit (ICU) with almost 25% spending their workday in emergency departments.


How To Become A Critical Care Nurse (Specific Steps)

Step 1: Education

Apart from the diploma in nursing or BSN, a prospective critical care nurse should be accredited by one of the accrediting bodies. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) are just but a few examples of the top accrediting bodies serving in the USA. As a basic requirement, nurses must also pass the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX).

Step 2: Certification

Only those who pass the NCLEX are eligible for further certification, commonly known as CCRN certification (Certification for Adult, Pediatric, and Neonatal Critical Care Nurse) which is offered by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN).

CCRN certification is renewable – a measure that the authority has taken to enhance continue competence among the professionals. Renewal can be done by Synergy CERPS at $200 for nonmembers and $120 for members or by Exam whose fees if $275 for non-members and $170 for members.

This certificate is valid for a period of 3 years. In order to be eligible for future renewals, the nurse must maintain their licensure and compete 100 continuing education recognition points (CERPs) in critical topics such as:

  • Caring practices
  • Response to diversity
  • Clinical inquiry
  • Collaboration

Step 3: Advanced Certification

As a nurse in this field of practice, you can choose to take your experience to a whole new level by acquiring advanced certification. One of the options you can go for is the Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) which entails courses in acute stroke care, airway management, ECG pharmacology among others. Another option is the Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS) which provides courses that enable experts to administer or recognize, prevent and treat cardiorespiratory arrest in children.

Step 4: Masters and PHD Training

You might first need to accumulate a few years of experience as a traditional nurse in order to work fully as a critical care nurse. But once you have landed a position in this career, you may need to enrich your critical care nurse resume in order to bolster your chances of success. You can go for a master of science in nursing degree (MSN) or DNP (PHD). The MSN will take you 2 additional years while the DNP will take you about 4 years to complete.


Critical Care Nurses Associations

Apart from classroom training, you might consider joining a relevant organization in order to acquire mentorship and industry insights. Some of these organizations include:

  • American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care
  • Critical Care Societies Collaborative (CCSC)
  • American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN)
  • Canadian Association of Critical Care Nurses (CACCN)
  • Society of Critical Care Medicine
  • British Association of Critical Care Nurses

What Is The Salary Of A Critical Care Nurse?

Recent data from the BLS show that annual salaries of critical care nursing professionals can vary somewhat based on industry (e.g. residential facilities, hospitals, government). Nurses with advanced training and work-based experience may also receive higher compensation. On average, in 2007, a trained and licensed critical care nurse earned $62,480 per year. That grew to $67,720 by 2010 and further to $68,910 in 2013.


Some states pay better than others. Overall, California leads with an industry average of $96,980, followed by Hawaii ($85,380), Massachusetts ($83,720), Alaska ($83,640), Oregon ($80,440) – according to the data contained in the Occupational Employment Statistics report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in February 2015.


What is the future of this career?

It is an exciting time to be a part of the healthcare industry because the future of critical care nursing is very promising. With so many changes in care delivery, technological advances and increased patient expectations, the role of critical care nurses as healthcare professionals is really growing and evolving. And as opportunities in this field are evolving so too are the skills and work environments associated with the field.

However, this industry is starting to face some hard obstacles and the nursing career of the future will be shaped by these problems including a shrinking field of expert critical care professionals and an aging population. The population of these critical care nurses is declining because the average age of a critical care nurse is now 47 and they are not being replaced fast as everyone would expect.

Current trends in both the America population and the demographics of critical care staff dictate that this industry will change very fast. With hundreds and millions of baby boomers starting to age, the demand for critical care facilities, especially within hospitals, will also increase.


In addition, the critical care nursing industry of the future will need a robust life support system that allows platforms or baskets to be attached for convenience items like otoscopes or sphygmomanometers, organizes information and delivers electrical capacity and medical gas utilities. Today’s critical care nursing utilizes three formats with some variations including overhead booms, head walls, and power columns. In the future, all of these systems will be greatly advanced and even wirelessly integrated with improved communication and documentation systems. However, not all medical institutions will adopt the most flexible and elaborate systems for reasons such as cost and patient acuity.

As a matter of fact, the demand for this career is estimated to grow by 19% over the next period of seven years according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This demand will probably increase as the population ages. However, in some areas, the demand will be as a result of the need to fill acute staffing shortages. It is, therefore, true to say that the future of the critical care industry looks more promising than we could have ever thought. So if you are a registered nurse looking to broaden your career opportunities, critical care nursing could the right specialty for you.

What are some of the challenges that critical care nurses face?


Critical care nurses face various problems in their line of duty. These include conquering variations in charting systems, becoming oriented to a new environment (especially for the case of critical care travelers), struggling to zip it when tempted to explain a better way of doing a task, learning physician and staff preferences and grappling with gaining respect from the staff.

They also face other difficulties based on the acuity of the patient population they serve. Some family members can be verbally abusive when upset that their loved could be on the edge of dying, with the critical care nurse bearing all their frustrations.

However, one of the biggest challenges these nurses face is inherent with the role. This is because in most cases there are difficult ethical decisions that need to be made by the family of the patient and the team of staff.

What it takes to excel in the field of critical care nursing — Tips

To excel in this career specialty you need more in your toolbox than simply the basic nursing skills you acquire in a class. Both providers and patients usually rely on the critical care nurse to be their eyes and ears, so they can be able to identify quickly even minute changes in patients. This capability, however, only comes with great experience in this field of critical care nursing. Nurses with three plus years of strong critical care experience and exposure to all different types of critical care units are in demand today.

Another way to excel in this field is to have strong communication skills. You need to communicate equally with members of the interdisciplinary team, patients and their families too. These skills can give you a leg-up in the job market.


Additionally, critical care industry is surrounded by technology as patients are dependent upon it. So having immense experience with respirators, electronic medical records (EMRs), different types of monitors, medical technology, and another equipment is very important if you must excel as a critical care nurse.

And finally, with the demand for critical care nurses increasing every year, don’t ignore advanced education and lifelong learning even after acquiring the licensure to a practice as critical care nurse. Certification is just another way to gain the competitive edge so ensure you enrich your critical care resume by advancing your education to bolster your chances of success in this competitive market.

Who can make a good critical care nurse?


The critical care nursing field of practice makes sure all critically ill patients get optimal care for their injuries and illnesses. To achieve that, experts with this training use specialized skills as well as in-depth knowledge of the human body alongside with the latest technology in the field. Most of these nurses work in hospitals although it is also possible to find them in flight units, outpatient facilities, and nursing homes.


Working in this kind of environment requires careful assessment and monitoring of patient progress in order to watch for subtle or sudden changes in a patient’s condition that might require emergency intervention. And because critical care nurses work with patients who have life-threatening complications, they often encounter end-of-life or ethical matters that may sometimes involve withholding medical care.

At the same time, these nurses are tasked with the difficult duty of updating family members of the patient, so that they can make informed decisions regarding available treatment options. As such, critical care nurses should always be ready to work for long hours and deal with life-and-death situations on a day-to-day basis.

Excellent teamwork, interpersonal communication skills, and multi-tasking are essential for a nurse serving in this field, as is the ability to remain calm under pressure. However,  many individuals find a critical care nursing career rewarding because they play a crucial role in helping save lives. Nurses in this area of practice often work in conjunction with a multidisciplinary team of consultants, doctors, physiotherapists and various other specialists to ensure optimal patient care.


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