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If you want to assist patients at a crucial stage in their recovery, consider a career as a post anesthesia care unit (PACU) nurse. These critical care registered nurses (RNs) work with patients just out of surgery who are recovering from the effects of anesthesia.
PACU nurses experience expanding career and salary opportunities as the volume of surgeries increases across the U.S., including the growing number of hospital-based procedures among the aging population.
Average Salary for PACU Nurses
PACU nurses typically earn higher salaries than generalist RNs. According to Payscale data from July 2022, RNs with recovery/post anesthesia care unit skills earn over $7,000 more each year than generalist RNs. RNs make an average yearly salary of $68,590, compared to $75,720 for PACU nurses.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment for all RNs, including PACU nurses, to grow by 9% between 2020 and 2030. While the demand for these specialized RNs remains high, PACU nurse pay varies considerably by location, educational level, credentials, and experience. PACU nurses with nine or more years of experience report annual base salaries between $84,000 and $109,000.
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The Highest-Paying States for PACU Nurses
The BLS does not gather employment data specific to PACU nurses. However, it publishes state-by-state salary information for all RNs, providing a strong indicator of what PACU nurses can expect to earn across the United States.
California offers the highest RN salaries in the country, averaging above $124,000 annually. California also hosts the top ten highest-paying urban centers for RNs in the country. The metropolitan areas around San Jose and San Francisco pay RNs the most, with yearly compensation levels above $150,000.
Hawaii, Oregon, the District of Columbia, and Alaska rank just behind California as the nation's top-paying states for RNs, offering annual mean salaries from $97,230 up to $106,530.
Differences in regional compensation reflect several factors, such as nursing shortages, labor union strength, and cost of living. The top five highest-paying states for RNs all rank among the states with the highest cost-of-living indicesin the country.
4 Ways to Increase Pay As a PACU Nurse
Even if you work in a state that does not pay top dollar, you can still boost your PACU nurse salary in other ways. Earning an advanced degree and specialized credentials can lead to greater job opportunities and larger paychecks.
The more clinical experience you acquire, the higher the compensation. If you are willing to take temporary assignments in medically underserved areas, travel nursing offers above average compensation.
While not required for employment as a PACU nurse, earning a perianesthesia certification demonstrates your professional commitment and advanced knowledge to employers. Healthcare facilities that prefer to hire certified PACU nurses typically offer higher salaries.
RNs with at least two years of clinical experience can qualify for either the certified post anesthesia nurse (CPAN) or the certified ambulatory perianesthesia nurse (CAPA) credential by taking the exams administered through the American Board of Perianesthesia Nursing Certification organization.
RNs who complete a BSN receive more in-depth training, resulting in better job and earning prospects than ADN graduates. As the demand for PACU nurses rises, RNs who pursue advanced degrees and CPAN and/or CAPA certifications can significantly enhance their career and salary potential. Earning a master of science in nursing or a doctorate degree can boost your salary and open the door to supervisory and teaching positions.
All recently licensed RNs begin their careers by building clinical experience. Nurses interested in PACU specialties should find placements in critical care and surgical departments, emergency rooms, and intensive care units. For some hospitals, on-the-job training in the postanesthesia unit or recovery room may provide enough training to work as a PACU nurse.
However, RNs must complete at least 1,800 hours of clinical experience over two years to qualify for CPAN or CAPA certification and better paying positions.
PACU nurses work with independent employment agencies to take temporary positions as travel nurses in medically underserved areas or regions facing nursing shortages. PACU travel nurses can earn much more than staff RNs, averaging over $3,100 a week. Depending on the assignment, they often benefit from bonuses and reimbursement of living and transportation expenses.
The job outlook for PACU travel nurses remains strong, due to the rising volume of surgical procedures and the unmet needs of patients with healthcare challenges.
Frequently Asked Questions About PACU Nurse Salaries
Do PACU nurses get paid more than the typical RN?
RNs with recovery/postanesthesia care unit skills make an average base hourly wage of $34.13, compared to $31.26 for generalist RNs. Earning an advanced degree and perianesthesia certifications can significantly improve earning potential.
What is the difference between a PACU and an operating room nurse?
Operating room nurses take care of patients before, during, and after surgical procedures, typically working as circulating nurses or scrub nurses in the operating room. PACU nurses care for post-surgery patients regaining consciousness from anesthesia. They give updates to the treatment team and provide information to patients and their families about how the procedure went and what to expect throughout recovery.
Can new grads work in the PACU?
PACU nursing requires specialized knowledge in critical care and anesthesia. These nurses must have the experience and temperament necessary to work in fast-paced, time-sensitive environments. In most states, PACU nurses must train for at least two years before applying for certification or moving into recovery units.
Where are PACU nurses in high demand?
Opportunities for PACU nurses have risen in regions of the country with large elderly populations who typically require more surgical procedures and postanesthesia care. Demand is also higher in underserved rural and urban areas. As hospitals and clinics reduce the backlog of surgeries delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for PACU nurses will continue to grow in the years ahead.
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