Acute Care Nurse Careers and Salary Outlook

January 26, 2022 · 5 Min Read

Acute care nurses are instrumental in providing patient care in a variety of healthcare settings. Find out how to be an acute care nurse and learn about salary and job growth for this career.

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Acute care nurses provide treatment for patients in need of immediate assistance. This rewarding yet challenging career requires years of preparation before earning certification. Our guide explores related credentials, acute care nurse salaries, and resources that can help professionals advance in their careers.

What is an Acute Care Nurse?

An acute care nurse is a nurse who helps patients with time-sensitive or critical issues. These issues can be chronic, such as complications from life-threatening diabetes, or sudden issues, like car accident injuries. These positions require a significant understanding of medical processes and technology; every moment matters when treating critically ill patients. These are not entry-level positions. To qualify, candidates must hold a nursing credential before pursuing specialized certification in acute care.
What Do Acute Care Nurses Do? Acute care nurses work with patients treating acute conditions, often helping them prep for surgery and providing postoperative care. Acute care nurses normally specialize in one particular field, such as surgical, geriatric, oncological, or cardiac care. As such, they work in specific units, private clinics, or continuing care facilities. People considering acute care nursing careers commonly wonder, "What does an acute care nurse do?" These nurses provide care for patients who need immediate or critical assistance, such as intensive care or emergency room patients. Acute care nurses often use technology to determine patient needs while taking steps to correct medical problems as they arise. They may provide medication or sedatives, check vital signs during operations, and keep track of recovery progress. Possible issues that acute care nursing practitioners might address include heart attacks, accidents, and respiratory problems.
Where Do Acute Care Nurses Work? Any medical organization that offers emergency or critical care may need acute care nurses. Specifically, individuals find work in emergency rooms, intensive care units, ambulatory care units, surgery centers, or long-term care organizations. These nurses may specialize in pediatric, neonatal, or adult care, which can influence work settings. Nurses also interact with professionals who focus on medical disciplines related to patients' ongoing health issues, such as cardiology and diabetes specialists. For this reason, acute care nurses' teams may change from patient to patient.
Skills That Could Affect Acute Care Nurse Salaries Acute care nurses must be able to work well under pressure to care for patients at critical moments, where every decision could be life-altering. For this reason, nurses should thrive at problem-solving and maintain extensive knowledge of medical treatments and technology to provide the best care possible. Acute care nurses should also excel at observation to alter treatments as soon as problems occur during procedures. These professionals must also communicate clearly to alert other medical professionals about patients' changing needs and to discuss progress and recovery with patients and families. At times, these nurses may communicate with families while patients are at critical stages, which also calls for compassion. Additionally, since they may physically adjust patients, watch families worry over loved ones, and grieve when patients do not recover, acute care nurses should possess physical, mental, and emotional strength.

How to Become an Acute Care Nurse

Earning certification as an acute care nurse requires dedication and time invested in coursework, field experience, and related exams. Often, acute care nurses focus on specific interest areas. For instance, these nurses can work with children, adults, or elderly patients, or they can provide assistance for chronic or critical issues. For any of these pathways, acute care nurses tend to work with severe or recent medical problems that require immediate attention. Due to this immediacy, tasks can change dramatically from moment to moment. Acute care nurses can save patients' lives in critical moments while working in exciting and ever-changing environments.


An acute care nurse must earn a nursing credential, such as a registered nurse (RN) or advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) license or certification. Earning these credentials, in turn, may call for a nursing degree. An RN license or certification may require an associate or bachelor's degree, while APRN credentials may require a higher acute care nursing degree, such as a master's. An associate degree typically calls for two years of courses and field experience, while a bachelor's degree takes four years of full-time enrollment to complete. Advanced degrees can require two or more additional years. Since license and certification requirements can vary between states, candidates should consult their local boards to determine what degrees, fieldwork, and examinations are needed for their career goals.

Training and Certification

To become an acute care nurse, candidates should first earn RN or APRN licenses or certifications. Requirements for these credentials often include education and fieldwork, regardless of state residency. The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) offers 15 certifications that usually require an RN or APRN license or certification to apply. Other requirements vary. For example, the critical care registered nurse (CCRN) pediatric certification requires at least two years and 1,750 hours of field experience, as well as completion of the CCRN exam. The CCRN-K pediatric credential, however, calls for 1,040 field hours and the CCRN-K exam. Candidates should explore all options to determine which one best complements their career objectives. Application fees for these credentials also vary, and there are discounts for AACN members. In general, applicants should expect to pay $130-$360 for test fees.

Acute Care Nurse Salaries and Job Growth

Aspiring professionals may wonder, "How much does an acute care nurse make?" Pay expectations can vary according to several factors. According to PayScale, the U.S. median income for these positions is $66,067, which exceeds the country's median income for all positions in 2018 by more than $10,000. Top-paying locations offer much higher salaries for acute care nurses. Specifically, Los Angeles, New York, and San Diego acute care nurses make median salaries of over $75,000. Other factors that impact salaries include experience. Entry-level acute care nurses take home a median pay of $57,302, while candidates in later years of their careers earn a median salary of more than $73,000. The specific industry can also influence earnings. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, RNs in the pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing industry take home a mean salary of over $95,000. Acute care nurses are included in the RN category. All of these expectations surpass incomes for similar positions, such as medical assistants and licensed practical nurses. The BLS also projects a 12% increase in RN positions between 2018 and 2028. Essentially, these positions offer competitive pay and should increase in availability in the coming years.
Highest Salary Locations for Acute Care Nurses
National Median $66,067
New York, New York $81,528
Los Angeles, California $77,570
San Diego, California $76,000
Houston, Texas $70,186
Dallas, Texas $64,354

Source: PayScale

Median Salary for Acute Care Nurses by Career Experience

  • Entry Level: $57,302
  • Early Career: $61,054
  • Mid Career: $65,907
  • Experienced: $70,855
  • Late Career: $73,381

Source: PayScale

Related Job Salaries
Registered Nurse Medical Assistant Licensed Practical Nurse Registered Nurse, Emergency Room Registered Nurse, Critical Care
$63,393 $32,840 $43,574 $66,391 $72,656

Source: PayScale

Featured Online Programs

Acute Care Nurse Resources

  • American Association of Critical-Care Nurses AACN delivers the National Teaching Institute and Critical Care Exposition, which offers presenters and professional development guidance. The association also provides the AACN Critical Care Webinar Series, continuing education experiences, and field certification. Additional benefits include the critical care registered nurse review course and resources on subjects like sepsis, pharmacology, and palliative care.
  • Pediatric Nursing Certification Board PNCB offers certifications in different areas of pediatric nursing, including credentials for acute and primary care nurse practitioners. The board also delivers free field resources, such as brochures and visual aids, and provides continuing education opportunities for renewing credentials. Nurses can gain field experience through volunteer experiences, which include writing and committee positions.
  • Association for Nursing Professional Development ANPD offers a preparation course for related certifications. Candidates can purchase professional development tools from the group, which include webinars, books, and toolkits, and also search available jobs through the association's career center. The group also delivers a yearly convention with workshops and keynote speakers.
  • American Nurses' Association ANA offers communities where members can network with other professionals. Members also receive access to nursing blogs and the ANA Member App, which offers updates on field developments. The website offers panels regarding nursing issues, like ethics and policy, and also provides a list of open positions.
  • American Nurses Credentialing Center ANCC isa part of the ANA. It connects professionals with nurse practitioner and clinical nurse specialist certifications in areas such as gerontology, primary care, and mental health. It also hosts events like the ANCC Pathway to Excellence Conference and the ANCC National Magnet Conference. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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