Critical Care Nurse Career Overview

by NurseJournal Staff
Reviewed by Nicole Galan, RN, MSN

Critical care nurses provide crucial care by monitoring and treating patients with life-threatening illnesses and injuries. This gratifying job places nurses in a fast-paced environment where they must think clearly and critically for long stretches of time.

Critical Care Nurse Career Overview
Credit: Ariel Skelley / Photodisc / Getty Images

What Does a Critical Care Nurse Do?

ADN or BSN required
certification optional


Critical care nurses possess the same skills as a registered nurse and may undergo additional training to care for acute or critical illnesses. An average workday includes monitoring critical medical support equipment and tending to patients with life-threatening injuries. Critical care nurses require clear communication to interact with other nurses and interdisciplinary teams to stabilize emergency situations. Nurses also work with healthcare providers to administer medical treatments, and keep the patient's family informed.

Key Skills

  • Ability to access and treat patients swiftly and accurately
  • Critical thinker in a fast-paced environment
  • Good communicator between patients and families
  • Physically fit for long, intensive shifts

Where Do Critical Care Nurses Work?

Critical care nurses apply their advanced training and expertise to various healthcare settings.

They typically work in intensive care units (ICU) but provide care in other healthcare facilities related to emergency injuries or long-term illness. Step-down units look after patients who don't need as much immediate care as a patient in the ICU but aren't stable enough to be sent to a medical floor or home. Some critical care nurses can even work from home by supporting other nurses from a teleICU.

ICU

  • Stabilize patients' health by assessing their condition, administering medicine, and monitoring life support machines
  • Adapt and stay calm under high-stress situations where critical thinking is crucial
  • Coordinate with the interdisciplinary team and the patient's family on the best course of action for the patient

Step-down Units

  • Help lower the number of patients in the ICU by providing an intermediate place for more stable patients to go
  • Provide care for patients who have just gone through major surgery or continue to need medical support
  • Comfort patients and families
  • Quickly be able to respond to any changes in a patient's condition

TeleICU

  • Create a treatment plan for a patient with other nurses and specialists through videoconferencing
  • Have an open mind to new ideas and ways to treat patients with teleICUs being a new development in healthcare
  • Technologically capable
  • Analytically minded

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Why Become a Critical Care Nurse?

Critical care nurses bear high-risk, high-reward careers because of the incredible amount of responsibility they carry when caring for patients in life-threatening situations. Nurses have to assume the job of advocate for unconscious patients and form bonds with the patient's family throughout the patient's admission. These situations add emotional weight to nurses' professional lives and can take a toll on their mental health.

Although they carry this heavy burden, there are many benefits to critical care nursing. When working at an ICU or other healthcare facilities, the critical care nurses have access to the most up-to-date medical equipment and get to work alongside veteran professionals. A critical care nurse also has many opportunities to specialize and gain a higher salary or seek higher-level positions.

Advantages to Becoming a Critical Care Nurse


The reward of having a part in a critically ill or injured patient's recovery Get to work with various professionals and work as part of a team Critical care nurses only provide care to a few patients at a time Opportunity to work with state-of-the-art medical technology

Disadvantages to Becoming a Critical Care Nurse


Critical care nurses sometimes face long hours where they might have to stay on their feet for 12-hour shifts Burnout from the high mortality rate of patients in critical conditions The heavy emotional weight of being a patients' advocate if they are unable to communicate

How to Become a Critical Care Nurse

Earn a BSN or ADN.
An aspiring critical care nurse first needs to get an undergraduate degree. The fastest way to do that is to get an ADN, but the AACN suggests a BSN boasts more advantages.
Pass the NCLEX-RN to Receive RN Licensure.
Administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing; the NCLEX-RN tests students’ nursing knowledge. After passing the NCLEX-RN, you can apply to earn your RN license. Every state requires a working nurse to have an RN license.
Gain Experience in Critical Care Nursing.
After receiving an RN license, a nurse must provide enough acute care experience to qualify to be a critical care nurse. This includes tasks like performing assessments and administering medications.
Consider Earning a Specialty Certification in Critical Care Nursing.
Some critical care nurses seek specialty certification, which comes with many benefits, such as higher salaries and additional job opportunities. Two to five years of work directly caring for patients in the critical care unit is required for certification.

Critical Care Nurse Certifications and Specialty Areas

Adult Critical Care Nurse (CCRN) true Adult critical care nurses care for adult patients in or recovering from life-threatening situations. Their daily tasks include monitoring the patients' vitals and coordinating a treatment plan.
Pediatric Critical Care Nurse (CCRN-P) Pediatric critical care nurses specialize in providing care to adolescents and children with a wide range of ailments. They need to tailor their care and treatment to match the appropriate age of the patient.
Neonatal Critical Care Nurse (CCRN-P) A neonatal critical care nurse directly cares for neonatal patients in critical conditions in the hospital neonatal ICU. Neonatal refers to newborn patients under 28 days old.

How Much Do Critical Care Nurses Make?

A critical care nurse's salary varies from geographical location, but they receive a national annual median pay of $74,991. Los Angeles, California, boasts the highest salaries for critical care nurses, with nurses earning more than 51.7% above the national average. The more experience a nurse has plays a large part in their earnings with PayScale reporting that critical care nurses with 20 years of experience earn over $40 an hour.

The BLS projects that all registered nurses positions, including critical care nurse jobs, will grow by 7% from 2019 to 2029.

Frequently Asked Questions


How long does it take to become a critical care nurse?

A critical care nurse requires an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing, which typically takes 2-4 years to complete. Along with this, a nurse needs to pass the NCLEX-RN exam to get their registered nurse license. Depending on the state or employer, healthcare facilities may also require certification from the AACN, which calls for a minimum of two years of professional experience.

Is a graduate degree required to become a critical care nurse?

A critical care nurse with a graduate degree has the ability to pick from a larger pool of job opportunities, but a graduate degree isn’t required to be a critical care nurse. A graduate degree, such as an MSN prepares nurses by providing them with additional education and training before starting their career.

What career advancement opportunities are available for critical care nurses?

More career opportunities open up for critical care nurses when they pursue higher education. Critical care nurses can specialize in specific fields like cardiac or neonatal. Critical care nurses who possess a master’s degree or doctorate have the option of working as a critical care nurse practitioner.

Resources for Critical Care Nurses

  • The AACN community supports acute and critical care nurses with resources and information to help provide the optimal care for their patients. The non-profit organization has a website where nurses can post and talk about everything related to the nursing field. Any practicing or retired critical care nurse is eligible to join after paying a fee.
  • The AACN has various online courses available for nurses who want to further educate themselves on certain subjects. Classes offered include the essentials of ECG and dysrhythmia monitoring and fundamentals skills for nurse managers. The courses currently range from 3 to 75 hours of continuing education credit.
  • Boasting more than 16,000 members in over 100 countries, SCCM offers critical care nurses a massive professional healthcare community. Members of the SCCM can choose from three different membership plans; associate, professional, and select. Each member can utilize SCCM resources and online courses to improve their healthcare skills.
  • Founded in Sydney, Australia, The WFCCN is an international federation for critical care providers. They support their community members by maintaining international cooperation between healthcare professionals, institutions, facilities, and charities that involve critical care. Any healthcare organization or individual that contributes to the critical care community can apply for membership.


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Reviewed by:

Nicole Galan is a registered nurse who earned a master's degree in nursing education from Capella University and currently works as a full-time freelance writer. Throughout her nursing career, Galan worked in a general medical/surgical care unit and then in infertility care. She has also worked for over 13 years as a freelance writer specializing in consumer health sites and educational materials for nursing students.

Galan is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners.

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