What is A Critical Care Nurse?

A critical care nurse is an experienced registered nurse that provides medical care to critically ill and injured patients.

Depending on their duties, critical care nurses assess, treat, and stabilize their patient’s conditions and work towards patient recovery and rehabilitation.

Because critical care nurses work with patients in the most severe conditions, they require lots of experience and patience.

Besides providing emergency medical care, critical care nurses must be sensitive to their patient’s emotions and needs.

Furthermore, they must be comfortable operating advanced medical machinery and technology.

Overall, critical care nurses are essential to the emergency department team.

Critical care nurses work in various medical settings within the emergency department.

It includes emergency rooms, trauma units, pediatric intensive care, neonatal intensive care, adult intensive care, and other fields that require critical care nursing.

ER Nurse vs. ICU Nurse

Although ER and ICU nurses receive the same education, their roles vary dramatically.

Both medical professionals are part of critical care and essential to ensuring optimal patient health and well-being.

However, their day-to-day tasks are different. As a result, ER and ICU nursing are often called chaos and order.

When critically injured/ill patient enters the hospital, an ER/trauma nurse sees them first.

An ER nurse’s role is to assess the patient’s condition and provide immediate care to stabilize their health.

Consequently, these healthcare professionals treat their patient’s conditions in order of life-threatening priorities.

It means assessing the highest life-threatening risks and addressing them from highest to lowest priority.

Because ER nurses are the first line of hospital care, they deal with intense situations.

These nurses stabilize and treat trauma like car accidents, critical wounds, burns, allergic reactions, and severe illnesses.

As a result, their responsibilities include providing CPR, stabilizing hemorrhaging, treating allergic reactions, and countless other duties.

On the other hand, ICU nurses provide medical care after the ER nurse stabilizes the patient.

These healthcare professionals focus on maintaining stabilization and ensuring recovery and rehabilitation.

For instance, a wounded patient arrives at the ER department and receives immediate care from a trauma nurse.

After the trauma nurse stabilizes the patient’s condition and surgery is performed (by a surgeon team), the patient goes to the ICU for recovery.

At this point, the patient is monitored and treated by the ICU nurse to ensure the patient remains stable and can recover.

Unlike ER/trauma nurses, the ICU nurse isn’t the patient’s first line of care.

Instead, they are the follow-up care patients receive after getting the necessary treatment to stabilize their condition.

Critical Care Nursing Skills

There are many skills required of those who work in critical care.

First and foremost, education and experience are of the utmost importance.

To become a critical care nurse, an individual must earn an ASN or BSN degree.

They must then work as a registered nurse in a non-critical care setting to gain experience.

Critical care nurses must have complete patient care experience, communication skills, technical skills, physical agility, and a solid emotional backbone in terms of nursing skills.

This section will discuss each of these skills in further detail.

Expertise and Experience

In the early stages of employment, registered nurses develop their knowledge and learn how to provide adequate patient care.

They also learn to communicate effectively with staff and patients to follow proper procedures.

Registered nurses must become familiar with the ins and outs of hospital care, machinery, staff interactions, and procedures.

Skills Critical Care Nurses Develop As RNs:

  • Developing communications skills with patients
  • Communicating effectively with staff
  • Learning how to operate medical machinery
  • Understanding hospital/patient procedures
  • Developing a solid understanding of medical terminology and processes
  • Managing computer data
  • Keeping records
  • Developing critical thinking skills
  • Developing assessment skills
  • Learning how to multi-task

Beyond that, future critical care nurses (registered nurses) must become certified in several areas related to urgent care.

With that said, not all registered nurses need to become CCRN certified to work in critical care.

However, earning CCRN certification can improve a registered nurse’s overall knowledge and ability to get hired into the critical care field.

CCRN certifications are for adult, pediatric, and neonatal care.

Each certification provides proof of foundational knowledge of the practices, procedures, and expertise needed to be proficient in that field.

Furthermore, registered nurses that are CCRN certified generally earn more pay than those who are not.

After all, learning new skills and developing expertise is a lifelong process for experienced nurses.

Communication Skills

Critical care nurses must be well educated and communicate effectively with medical staff.

It includes understanding medical terminology, developing critical thinking, having excellent assessment skills, and multi-tasking effectively.

Ultimately, critical care nurses will collaborate with a team of specialists to ensure adequate medical care.

Each medical professional will have skills contributing to the patient’s well-being.

As a result, every medical professional must understand the other’s roles and work collectively to solve problems and manage patient care.

The Medical Team Consists Of:

  • Care managers
  • Trained nurses (i.e., triage nurses, ER/trauma nurses, ICU nurses, etc.)
  • Physical/occupational therapists
  • Physicians
  • Respiratory therapists
  • Surgeons

And other medical professionals with experience related to intensive/critical care.

Because patients in critical care require a team of experienced individuals, social skills and role-playing are essential for short-term and long-term success.

Technical Skills

Aside from communication skills, critical care nurses must have adequate technical skills.

It includes understanding various medical equipment and developing proficiency with computers and medical software.

In critical care, nurses operate technology that is fundamental to ensuring patient care and survival.

Therefore, learning to operate numerous tools and use computers efficiently is essential.

Common Equipment in The Critical Care Department Includes

  • ICU bed
  • Anesthesia machine
  • Defibrillator
  • EKG machine
  • Enteral feeding pump
  • Infusion/IV pump
  • Medical stretcher
  • Patient Monitors
  • Pulse oximetry device
  • Respiratory ventilator
  • Restraints
  • Sequential compression device
  • Syringe pump
  • Ultrasound machine
  • Video Laryngoscope
  • Vital signs monitor

And various other equipment and accessories such as diagnostic equipment, tubing/pumps, wires, and medical furniture.

Because these forms of equipment are standard and necessary for critical care, nurses must thoroughly understand them.

They can take courses to assist registered nurses in developing proficiency with these tools.

A hospital with a sufficient ICU/ER department may provide courses and training for various equipment.

Physical Dexterity

As you can imagine, critical care nursing is physically demanding work.

Providing medical care, lifting/moving patients around, and handling heavy medical equipment are commonplace in the emergency/ICU department.

Furthermore, critical care nurses spend much time on their feet, standing and walking around.

Critical care nurses often work 12-hour shifts, which requires a lot of physical and mental energy.

Over time this can lead to back pain, foot discomfort, and body soreness.

As a result, those working in critical care must take care of their bodies and receive adequate rest when not working.

Additionally, diet is essential.

Although many nurses live off coffee and snacks, they must eat a balanced diet to maintain energy throughout the day.

However, this is easier said than done for many nurses.

Long shifts with few breaks in between provide little opportunity for mental, physical, and emotional recovery.

As a result, shift preparation is necessary to get through the day as effectively as possible.

With that said, the challenges critical care nurses receive daily vary from hospital to hospital.

Those working in busier locations likely experience more stress than nurses in rural areas.

Also, factors such as crime rate, population density, significant roads/hazards, and natural disasters impact the amount and types of patient care a nurse receives daily.

Emotional Fortitude

Working as a critical care nurse is emotionally challenging.

Critical care nurses must maintain a solid composure to care for patients in critical condition daily.

Being a critical care nurse is complex, and many emotional experiences can be overwhelming.

It’s especially true in locations with many patients regularly coming into the emergency department.

Patients go to the ER/ICU for various reasons, impacting nurses emotionally.

For instance, patients receive medical care due to severe burns, a disastrous car crash, or critical wounds from a violent event.

Therefore, critical care nurses must be able to handle regular exposure to potentially traumatic experiences.

Common Reasons Patients go to the ICU:

  • Brain Trauma
  • Blood infections
  • Drug-resistant infections
  • Organ failure
  • Lung/cardiac problems
  • Severe injuries (i.e., car accidents, severe burns, wound victims, natural disasters, etc.)

Although patients may go to the ICU for other reasons, these are some of the most common causes.

As a critical care nurse, some of these experiences will be more difficult to handle than others.

Therefore it is essential to receive quality mental care and assistance for mentally/emotionally challenging situations.

Furthermore, aside from the physical aspects of medical care, some patients can be challenging to treat.

Critical care nurses experience verbal, emotional, and even physical combativeness from unruly patients in certain situations.

These experiences can dramatically impact nurses who have trouble handling confrontations and altercations.

Therefore, nurses must understand how to deescalate a situation and call in reinforcements if necessary.

With that said, plenty of critical care nurses love their job and find it rewarding.

The experiences these healthcare professionals receive vary significantly, and every nurse has their own stories to share.

How To Become A Critical Care Nurse

Those interested in working as critical care nurses must first obtain their registered nursing degree.

It means attending an accredited nursing program that offers a two-year ADN or four-year BSN degree.

Upon completing the degree and receiving their license, registered nurses should seek employment at a hospital to gain experience.

After receiving a year or two of experience, look for work in the emergency department.

Use this time to gain additional experience and develop the skills necessary to work as an ER/ICU nurse.

Another step registered nurses take to work in critical care is to earn their CCRN certification.

While nurses don’t need to take the CCRN exam to work in critical care, many facilities highly recommend the certification.

Registered nurses that reside in the US may get certified through a national advisory board.

CCRN certification helps nurses get hired more easily into critical care.

CCRN-certified nurses also receive higher salaries on average due to their knowledge and certification.

Registered nurses do not need CCRN certification to work in the ER unless required by the healthcare facility.

Furthermore, these steps aren’t always necessary to work in critical care.

Numerous factors influence how quickly a registered nurse can enter critical care.

It includes work availability/nursing role, college degree (ADN/BSN), work experience during nursing school, and other factors.

Students with the right work experience can earn jobs right out of college.

It all depends on the previously mentioned circumstances and prior work experience.

For instance, well-performing college students with work experience in emergency care roles can apply for critical care work.

It’s beneficial when applying to hospitals that frequently need critical care nursing staff.

With the proper position and experience, college graduates can work in the emergency department.

What If I Don’t Have Work Experience From College?

There is still a direct path leading to critical care work for those with limited work experience during their college years.

Again, not every registered nurse needs to follow these steps, but it clarifies how to become a critical care nurse.

Also, it can take two to four years for those wondering how long it takes to become a critical care nurse.

It depends on your overall work experience, nursing degree, the location you apply to, and the ER position.

9 Steps to Becoming A Critical Care Nurse 

  1. Complete the necessary prerequisite to apply for the nursing program
  2. Join an accredited registered nursing school program
  3. Earn your ASN or BSN degree
  4. Pass the NCLEX exam and receive your license
  5. Apply for a job at a hospital (preferably one with an emergency department)
  6. Gain 1 – 2 years of experience as a registered nurse
  7. Look for work in the emergency department
  8. Gain additional experience working in the ER.
  9. Apply for a position as an ER/ICU nurse

Besides rewarding, working in critical care is a great way to advance a nurse’s career.

The experience gained in critical care transitions into almost any other career in nursing.

Furthermore, it improves the odds of getting hired into other areas of nursing.

Hopefully, this article will help you achieve your goal of becoming a critical care nurse.