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How to Become a Critical Care Nurse


Critical care nurses provide nursing care for critically ill patients, as well as pre- and postoperative patients. They work in hospital intensive care units (ICUs), specialized critical care units, emergency departments, and emergency transport. Critical care patients require continuous monitoring and treatment for life-threatening conditions related to injuries, long-term illness, and other medical events, such as heart attacks and strokes.


If you’re wondering how to become a critical care nurse, the journey entails meeting rigorous education requirements, receiving on-the-job training, and earning certification. Additionally, you must meet the ongoing training requirements defined by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN). Maryville University’s RN to BSN online program helps students gain the skills needed to advance into a critical care nursing career.

What Does a Critical Care Nurse Do?

A critical care nurse provides specialized care to patients who are critically ill or suffer from life-threatening injuries that require advanced care in ICUs, emergency rooms, neonatal ICUs, pediatric ICUs, cardiac care units, cardiac catheter labs, telemetry units, progressive units, and recovery rooms. Critical care nurses work alongside other healthcare professionals, including doctors, surgeons, nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse researchers, nurse educators, and healthcare case managers.


In addition to hospitals, work settings for critical care nurses include patients’ personal residences, outpatient surgery centers, private physicians’ offices, managed care centers, and nursing schools. Critical care nurses perform complex patient assessments, implement intensive interventions and therapies, and monitor patients. A critically ill or injured patient’s condition can worsen quickly without warning, so critical care nurses must be able to immediately change a current care plan and provide emergency care.


The duties of a critical care nurse often include cleaning and bandaging a patient’s wounds, tracking life support equipment, and immediately responding to changes in a patient’s condition. These nurses may also serve as advocates, supporting and respecting the basic rights, values, and beliefs of critically ill or injured patients. Acting as patients’ representatives, critical care nurses find additional resources outside of the immediate care setting to assist in their patients’ recovery.


Critical care nurses work with patients and families experiencing extreme stress. Providing serious medical care for patients requires that these professionals be empathetic, sensitive, and compassionate while coping with major medical and life-or-death situations. Critical care nurses should be prepared to handle a wide range of emotions resulting from interactions with patients and their families. Often, critical nurses will have to make tough, objective decisions while remaining calm and caring.

Critical Care Nurse Education Requirements

Because working in a critical care department requires advanced skills, critical care nurse education requirements often include earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing. To become a critical care nurse, a health professional must first become a registered nurse, which requires a bachelor’s or associate degree. Registered nurses can advance to the critical care nursing profession after earning a critical care certification and state license and gaining one to five years of on-the-job experience caring for acutely or critically ill patients. After earning a bachelor’s degree, some critical care nurses may pursue a master’s degree to take on leadership positions in the critical care nursing field.

Critical Care Nurse Skills

Critical care nurses need strong decision-making and leadership capabilities to function in a high-stress, fast-paced environment such as an ICU or emergency trauma unit. Health professionals working in critical care settings also need to be familiar with complex medical equipment such as respirators and cardiac monitors. Some of the skills a critical care nurse needs include:


  • Communication: Critical care nurses are vital communication links for patients, families, and doctors.
  • Critical thinking: Emergency situations require nurses to make important medical decisions quickly to serve critical patient needs while paying close attention to detail to avoid errors.
  • Physical endurance: Nurses in critical care settings must perform strenuous tasks and often remain on their feet for entire shifts.


Other characteristics of a critical care nurse include:


  • Resiliency: Nurses need emotional strength, as nursing can be a mentally demanding and emotionally challenging profession.
  • Confidence: Nurses must be confident in their knowledge and decisions to ensure proper patient treatment.
  • Compassion: Nurses should maintain empathy for and sensitivity to patients and families.

Types of Critical Care Nurses

Critical care nurses can pursue certification in several specialties, including:


  • Acute/Critical Care Nurse-Adult (CCRN-Adult): Nurses provide direct care for acutely or critically ill adults in a variety of locations, including ICUs and cardiac care units.
  • Acute/Critical Care Nurse-Pediatric (CCRN-Pediatric): Nurses care for acutely or critically ill children in many settings, including ICUs and trauma units.
  • Acute/Critical Care Nurse-Neonatal (CCRN-Neonatal): Nurses care for newborns and premature infants in critical or acute conditions, typically in NICUs and other specialty care units.


Other career options open to critical care nurses include:


  • TeleICU Nurse: These nurses specialize in providing bedside remote care via audiovisual communication and computer equipment. TeleICU professionals typically work from a central or remote location.
  • Transport/Flight Nurse: These nurses provide care to critically injured or ill patients during ambulance, helicopter, or plane transports.
  • Head CCU Nurse: These nurses lead critical care departments such as ICUs, NICUs, and trauma units. Duties include staff supervision, quality monitoring, and inventory management.

Steps to Become a Critical Care Nurse

If a nursing career with an emphasis on taking care of severely ill or injured patients sparks your interest, you’ll need to know the education, certification, and experience requirements for becoming a critical care nurse.


The path toward becoming a critical care nurse begins with launching a career as a registered nurse. Because of the demands and complexity of administering critical care, many employers require a prospective critical care nurse to have a RN to BSN online. Nurses often learn the advanced skills to become a critical care nurse through field training in a hospital setting.


Critical care nurses need to have the CCRN credential offered through the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN). The skills required to become a critical care nurse are similar to those required to become a registered nurse.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing

You must have a formal nursing education to legally qualify for registered nursing positions. Maryville University’s online BSN may lead to a wide range of options for beginning or continuing a career in the healthcare industry. With a BSN, you can work for major hospitals, private practice clinics, home-care services, and nursing care facilities. It is possible to begin your nursing career with an associate degree, but your career options may expand with a BSN.


BSN graduates often work as nursing managers, nursing specialists, nurse educators, nursing informatics specialists, geriatric nurses, public health nurses, and critical care nurses. The bachelor’s degree in nursing is a launching point to start a career as a critical care nurse, working in intensive care units, emergency departments, and recovery rooms. Most employers will require you to have between one and two years’ experience prior to becoming a critical care nurse.

Step 2: Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX)

After you have earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing, you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), a requirement for any nurse who wishes to work in the United States. The NCLEX-RN is a computer-generated exam created by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). The NCSBN works with nursing and regulatory boards to help maintain standards in nursing and promote the profession across the country.


The NCLEX-RN is designed to cover the processes that make up the foundation of the nursing practice. The test is divided into four categories, with six subcategories that span a range of topics designed to assess nursing competency.


Passing this exam is a mark of excellence. With board certification, you demonstrate to patients, employers, and the public that you have a high level of nursing knowledge that reflects national standards and demonstrates your commitment to patient safety. Passing the NCLEX-RN qualifies nurses for state licensing, which may have additional requirements such as a background check.


Once you earn a BSN, pass the NCLEX-RN, and earn a state license, you are a registered nurse. You may be able to find entry-level employment as an RN in the critical care unit of a hospital or trauma center. However, some employers prefer job candidates with prior nursing experience.

Step 3: Earn a Master of Science in Nursing

Critical care nurses who earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) may significantly expand their career options and be prepared to take on a wider range of responsibilities in the workplace. The MSN curriculum includes additional theory- and evidence-based courses, building on the foundation established in a BSN program.


Master’s in nursing students receive instruction and complete clinical hours, both of which offer the medical knowledge and skills they will need to treat critically ill patients. They learn how to take a leadership role in their positions, as well as how to apply theoretical learning in the real-life scenarios encountered in hospital settings.


An MSN provides critical-thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills and training that help you prepare for situations you will encounter on the job, including interactions with patients, families, and doctors. You will also learn how to effectively cope with the emotional and physical challenges that you will face as a critical care nurse.

Step 4: Get Certified by the AACN

An important step in pursuing this specialized area of nursing is becoming a certified critical care nurse through the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. The CCRN certification from the AACN Certification Corporation establishes a baseline of knowledge for nursing critically ill or injured patients. CCRN is a service mark of the AACN and does not stand for “critical care registered nurse,” as AACN does not guarantee that a certification holder is an RN, which is a license regulated by each state — though nurses must have an RN license when they apply for CCRN certification.


Possessing the CCRN certification demonstrates your commitment to advancing your career and continually improving your skills and nursing expertise. Critical care nurses can be certified in various specialized medical areas. The specialized certification is valid for three years and must be periodically renewed.


Critical care nurses can attain other types of certifications from different organizations. If you seek certification from another organization, check credentialing requirements before pursuing the endorsement. Requirements for renewal may differ from those stipulated by the AACN.

Continuing Education and Growth for Critical Care Nurses

Employers usually require that their critical care nurses attend continuing education classes to retain their positions. Continuing education helps critical care nurses perform effectively in the workplace, stay up to date with the most current teachings in the field, and master the latest technology. Keeping their skills current also helps critical care nurses perform as leaders and raises the bar to ensure excellent patient care at each facility.


Additional training and academic achievements can help facilitate career progression. For example, critical care nurses may want to consider enrolling in one of Maryville University’s graduate degree programs in healthcare and science.

Critical Care Nurse Salaries

The median salary of a registered nurse was $73,000 in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The exact salary depends on level of education, years of experience, and size of the hospital or healthcare facility, among other factors.

Future Growth of Critical Care Nurses

The employment of registered nurses is projected to increase by 12% between 2018 and 2028, much faster than the average growth for all occupations, according to the BLS. There are numerous reasons for this growth, including an increased emphasis on preventive care; growing rates of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and obesity; and the demand for healthcare services from baby boomers as they live longer and more active lives.

Explore Advanced Nursing Careers

In today’s medical environment, patients are released from hospitals with complex medical needs that require the skills of critical care nurses with specialized training and experience. Critical care nurses frequently provide care to the critically ill and injured at patients’ homes and rehabilitation facilities. So in addition to helping critical nurses develop skills in hospital settings, an advanced nursing career also calls for skills in serving patients after they leave.


Begin your journey toward becoming a critical care nurse by enrolling in the RN to BSN online program offered by Maryville University.


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