Becoming a Critical Care Nurse: Job Description & Salary Information

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Get the truth about a critical care nurse's salary, education requirements and career prospects. Read the job description and see the pros and cons of becoming a critical care nurse.
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Pros and Cons of a Career in Critical Care Nursing

Critical care nurses are found at the bedsides of patients needing immediate or constant medical attention. Below is a list of pros and cons to help you decide if a career in critical care nursing is the right choice for you.

Pros of Becoming a Critical Care Nurse
Nurses are in high demand (19% job growth projected from 2012-2022)*
Well-paying career (median salary over $68,000 in 2015)**
May only need a nursing diploma or associate degree for some positions (2-3 years of schooling)*
Flexible work schedule (20% of nurses worked part-time in 2012)*

Cons of Becoming a Critical Care Nurse
State licensing is required*
Long shifts at night and on weekends are common*
High-stress work environment*
Job risks include injury or contracting a disease*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Salary.com

Career Info

Job Description and Duties

After a patient suffers a heart attack, comes out of surgery or experiences severe trauma, critical care nurses step in and provide daily care and diligent monitoring. These patients are at risk for severe complications and possibly death, so even small changes must be recorded and communicated to doctors and other healthcare providers. As a critical care nurse, you administer medicines, assist with procedures and treatments, comfort patients, perform tests and interpret results, consult with doctors and answer questions from family members and patients. Because lives are often on the line, high-stress situations can be common in this field.

Critical care nurses usually work in hospitals and other facilities that receive patients who need constant care and treatment. They perform their work in intensive care units, emergency rooms and recovery rooms, among other facilities. Nurses must be available to work at any time of the day and might be on-call when not scheduled for a normal shift, since 24-hour care is often necessary.

Salary Info and Job Outlook

The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) recognizes a shortage of nurses, especially in acute care and other nursing specialties. Hospitals may offer monetary incentives, like bonuses and tuition reimbursements, to attract qualified talent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) determined that advancements in medical technology and longer life expectancy could lead to a 19% increase in employment of registered nurses from 2012-2022. According to Salary.com, the median annual salary for staff nurses working in critical care units was approximately $68,000, not including sign-on bonuses, as of 2015.

What Are the Requirements?

According to the AACN, you have three possible educational options in critical care nursing: a nursing diploma, an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree in nursing. The diploma and associate's programs should take about 2-3 years to complete, and courses may include physiology, anatomy, psychology, social sciences and chemistry. The Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) can be earned in four years, and coursework includes additional studies in critical thinking, leadership and communications. In any of these nursing programs, you have the opportunity to hone your skills in a supervised clinical setting. You might gain some experience in a critical care unit, but most of your knowledge in critical care comes from on-the-job training after graduation.

Licensure and Necessary Skills

All states require registered nurses to qualify for and obtain a license before they can work in the field. Although licensing requirements vary by state, you generally need to graduate from an accredited nursing program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses administered by your state nursing board.

While caring for critically ill patients who may be frightened or anxious, nurses need to be compassionate, patient and able to react quickly in emergency situations. As a nurse in a critical care unit, you must be able to keep your cool under stressful circumstances and perform your duties with a high level of accuracy. Excellent verbal and written communication skills are essential when reporting patient information to doctors and other healthcare professionals.

Job Postings from Real Employers

When advertising open positions for critical care nurses, employers often specify shift hours and basic duties. Candidates are usually required to have at least one year of experience, preferably in an acute or critical care department; licensure is also necessary. Check out the real job postings below, found in May 2012, to get an idea of what employers look for:

  • A hospital in New York is hiring a critical care RN with strong nursing skills and at least one year of experience in acute care. Candidates must obtain state licensing and be able to work 12-hour shifts. Weekend shifts are also required.
  • A medical center in Georgia is looking for critical care nurses to work in their cardiovascular, trauma, neurology and surgical ICUs. Completion of a nursing degree or diploma program and state licensure is required. Prospective employees must also have two years of experience and computer skills.
  • A hospital in Colorado is seeking a critical care RN with basic life saving and advanced cardiac life support certification and an active state nursing license. Duties include evaluating patients, coordinating care, working with doctors and other providers and meeting the needs of patients and their families. This is a night-shift position that requires two years of critical care experience.

How Can I Stand Out in the Field?

Although a bachelor's degree in nursing isn't required for many jobs, the BLS acknowledges the competitive advantage of obtaining a BSN. Many schools offer RN-to-BSN programs that help licensed nurses qualify for advanced administrative or supervisory positions. As hospitals move to digital recordkeeping, nurses may be expected to have some basic computer skills. Taking computer classes at a community or trade school shows employers that you can keep up with technological advancements in the field.

Obtaining voluntary critical care nursing certification offered by professional organizations - such as the AACN - demonstrates your dedication to excellent standards of patient care. The AACN offers certification in areas of critical care, including neonatal, pediatric and adult care; cardiac surgery; and cardiac medicine. To receive certification, you must pass an exam that tests your knowledge of nursing techniques and patient interaction skills.

Alternative Career Options

Physician Assistant (PA)

If you'd like to be more involved in patient treatment decisions and want to earn more than critical care nurses, consider a career as a physician assistant. Under a doctor's supervision, you perform exams, diagnose injuries and illnesses, analyze test results, administer treatments, write prescriptions and address the concerns and questions that patients may have. As stated by the BLS, physician assistants most often hold a master's degree from a program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. These programs generally take about two years to complete, and most applicants have previously earned a bachelor's degree and have some experience in the healthcare industry.

PA licensing is required by all states, and qualifications include passing an exam administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. Based on data from the BLS, employment of physician assistants is project to increase by 30% during the 2010-2020 decade. In May of 2011, these healthcare providers earned a median average wage of almost $89,000.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN)

A career as a licensed practical or vocational nurse is a nursing alternative that requires less education but has faster-than-average job growth. Each state uses either the LPN or LVN title, and job duties include monitoring patient vital signs and changes in health, giving baths, changing bandages and providing physical and emotional support to the sick or injured. Practical and vocational nurses usually work under the direct supervision of doctors or registered nurses. In some states, LPNs or LVNs can administer medication.

Requirements for this career include completing a 1-year accredited program at a technical school or community college. You also need to obtain a license by passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses. The BLS projected a 22% increase in the number of employed LPNs and LVNs between 2010 and 2020. The median annual wage for these professionals was a little over $41,000 as of May 2011.

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