How Do I Become a Critical Care Nurse?

Research what it takes to become a critical care nurse. Learn about job duties, education requirements, certification and salary potential to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Nursing degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Critical Care Nurse?

Critical care nurses care for seriously ill and injured patients, including monitoring medical life devices and overseeing the patients' medications. Critical care nurses can be registered nurses (RN) or nurse practitioners (NP). It is recommended that you cope well in high stress situations, easily cooperate with others, have a good bedside manner and are physically capable of long and difficult hours on your feet. In addition, nurse practitioners are expected to be able to lead others effectively as they may be in positions in which they will manage other nurses and staff.

Take a look at the following chart for an overview of how to enter this field.

Critical Care Registered Nurse Critical Care Nurse Practioner
Degree Required Associate's or bachelor's Master's
Education Field of StudyRegistered nursing Critical care nurse practitioner
Key Skills Handle life-threatening situations, provide life support under doctor supervision Diagnose and treat medical conditions, including life-threatening illnesses; prescribe some medications
Licensure Required RN license; voluntary certification in critical care nursing RN license; voluntary certification in critical care nursing
Job Growth (2014-2024) 16% (all registered nurses)* 35% (all nurse practitioners)*
Average Salary (2015) $71,000 (all registered nurses)* $101,260 (all nurse practitioners)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Do Critical Care Nurses Do?

Critical care nursing encompasses many different nursing disciplines from neonatal nursing to intensive care. Critical care nurses respond to patients with critical care needs, handle life-threatening diseases, illnesses and injuries. They work in hospitals, emergency rooms, intensive care units, pediatric and neonatal ICUs, outpatient surgery and other clinics. Critical care nurses receive specialized training in order to learn how to handle life-threatening situations, respond to medical emergencies and provide basic life support.

What Training Do I Need?

In order to apply for a registered nurse (RN) license you must have a nursing degree from an accredited nursing program. Many associate's and bachelor's degree nursing programs offer you the option to take coursework that teaches you to work with emergency, trauma, and life support patients. Some programs may have a critical care focus, while others may offer a supplemental certificate in critical care nursing. These programs usually have courses that include clinical nursing, pharmacology, health assessment, human responses and advanced care in illness.

You might also consider earning a master's degree as a critical care nurse practitioner (NP). These programs typically provide advanced training in pharmacology, clinical assessment, physiology and patient management, among other topics. Completing a nursing master's program typically prepares you for national certification and advanced licensing. As an NP, you may treat and diagnose medical problems and prescribe some medications. RNs, in contrast, may only work under a physician's supervision and are legally prohibited from prescribing medications.

What Certification Should I Get?

All nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to become an RN. In addition, the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) issues a Critical Care Nursing (CCRN) credential for nurses who want to work with critically ill patients. Although certification is not required, a professional certificate demonstrates your ability to perform at the national standard. To be eligible for the certificate, you must have a valid RN license and experience working with the critically ill. You must also pass an exam that tests your knowledge of critical care for a particular group of patients such as adults, children or newborns.

If you choose the nurse practitioner path, you may also obtain certification from the AACN through its Certification for Acute Care Nurse Practitioner program. To qualify for this exam, you must have completed an accredited master's program and have 500 hours of supervised clinical experience during your schooling. You'll need to periodically take continuing education training to maintain these certifications.

What Is My Career and Salary Outlook?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), registered nurses are expected to experience 16% job growth between 2014 and 2024, which is faster than the average for all U.S. occupations (www.bls.gov). In 2015, the BLS reported that the average yearly salary for RNs was $71,000, with those working in hospitals making up about 60% of the nursing workforce. Nurse practitioners earned $101,260 during the same year, with about 46% working in physician offices. From 2014-2024, NPs can expect much faster-than-average growth at 35%.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you don't feel that critical care nursing is for you, you may wish to specialize in another field of nursing. For instance, as a registered nurse or nurse practitioner, you may choose to work in neonatology, cardiology or rehabilitation. You may also choose to become a nurse midwife or nurse anesthetist. Nurse midwives primarily provide prenatal care to expectant mothers monitoring them throughout their pregnancies and deliveries, while nurse anesthetists deal with anesthesia for patients undergoing surgical procedures.

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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