How Can I Become an Acute Care Nurse?

Explore the career requirements for acute care nurses. Get the facts about education and licensure requirements, salary, and potential job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Nursing degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is an Acute Care Nurse?

Acute care nurses are medical professionals that perform duties comparable to those of a doctor, with the limitation that doctors typically lead or perform surgical operations. Acute care nurses may see patients and assess their condition. They may order tests, diagnose the patient and develop a treatment plan. They may also prescribe medication. As part of their duties they work with the patient's family. They provide information about the diagnoses and the treatment and how that will affect the person who's ill. They may also monitor the patient's vital signs, update their medical charts or oversee those providing direct patient care.

Degree Required Master's or doctoral degree
Education Field of Study Acute care nurse practitioner
Key Skills Good communication skills; attention to detail; compassion; critical thinking skills
Licensure and/or Certification Licensure as a registered nurse is required; board certification in acute care nursing is available
Job Growth 2014-2024) 35% for all nurse practitioners*
Median Salary (2015) $98,190 for all nurse practitioners*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Education Requirements for Acute Care Nurses

According to the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, all registered nurses (RNs) must have an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). You'll also want to check with your own state board of nursing to learn about any additional requirements. Two-year nursing programs typically include courses in anatomy and physiology, behavioral science, chemistry and microbiology. Supplemental coursework in communication, critical thinking and the physical sciences can be found through a bachelor's degree program; both levels of study require clinical care experiences.

While an undergraduate program in nursing can provide you with an introduction to acute care, you'll most likely acquire your specialized training on the job. A master's or doctoral degree is required to pursue an advanced practice position, such as that of an acute care nurse practitioner. RNs differ from nurse practitioners in a few ways. For example, if you become a nurse practitioner, you will be able to prescribe medications, whereas registered nurses cannot.

Some schools offer Master of Science in Nursing programs that can help you prepare for a career as an adult acute care nursing practitioner. In general, the programs require two years of full-time study to complete, and admission requirements include an associate or a bachelor's degree in nursing from an accredited program and/or relevant clinical experience.

Course Topics

A Master of Science in Nursing with an emphasis on adult acute care program may cover topics in nursing theory, research and professional leadership. You can also learn how to manage the care of critically or terminally ill patients and take courses in pathophysiology and pharmacology. Individual schools may include topics in clinical reasoning, disease prevention or diagnostic procedures. Depending on the program, you may also have the chance to specialize in AIDS/HIV, cardiology, oncology or transplantation, among other fields.

Experience and Employment

As an undergraduate, you could receive hands-on, supervised training in a maternity, pediatric, surgery or other hospital department. You may also have the opportunity to work in a home health agency, long-term care facility or walk-in clinic.

As an acute care nurse, you might find a position in a neonatal or pediatric intensive care unit, emergency department or trauma unit. Critical care nurses who work with heart patients may perform services in catheter labs or telemetry departments. Along with conducting patient assessments and providing high-level care, you'll serve as an advocate for patients and their families.

Optional Certifications

You do not need to be certified to become an acute care nurse; however, some employers may show a preference for candidates who have earned a credential. These include the, available from the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, and requirements include at least two years of relevant experience and a passing score on an CCRN certification exam.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Physician assistants and registered nurses are professionals with aspects of their work that are similar to the work an acute care nurse may do. Physician assistants may be involved in conducting a patient check-up, ordering tests and diagnosing their condition, which are all tasks an acute care nurse may perform. Registered nurses follow the patient care plan and monitor patients and may assist with administering treatments or give the patient medication. The ultimate goal of all of these professionals is the same; they strive to provide the most effective medical treatment to their patients to ensure their health. Physician assistants need a master's degree, though registered nurses need only a bachelor's degree.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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