ICU Nurse: Career and Salary Facts

Research what it takes to become an ICU nurse. Learn about education requirements, job duties, average wages and job outlook to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Nursing degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is An ICU Nurse?

An ICU nurse works in the intensive care unit (ICU) of a hospital. They are also known as a critical care nurse. The patients they work with need constant care, and are at risk of dying from their injuries or illness without diligent medical attention. ICU nurses need to be able respond quickly to medical emergencies. They need to communicate with doctors and nursing supervisors about even small changes in a patient's condition if it is cause for concern. Their ability to effectively assess a patient's condition may save a patient's life. ICU nurses also provide direct care to patients, and may help them bathe or dress or exercise. Their work can be very stressful, and they need to constantly monitor the patients in their care.

Career Information at a Glance

ICU stands for Intensive Care Unit, and nurses who work in this unit care for critically ill patients. The following chart gives you an overview about entering this field.

Degree Required Associate's or bachelor's degree
Education Field of Study Nursing
Key Responsibilities Monitor critically ill patients and report changes in status; administer medication; take vital signs and use medical equipment as part of treatment; maintain patient records
Licensure and/or Certification Licensure as registered nurse (RN) is required; Critical Care Registered Nurse certification (CCRN) is available
Job Growth (2014-2024) 16% for all registered nurses*
Median Salary (2015) $67,490 for all registered nurses*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Are the Job Duties of an ICU Nurse?

ICU nurses provide medical care to patients who need constant monitoring because of severe illness or injury. As a nurse in a critical care unit, you will administer medications, fluids and blood products, change dressings, check oxygen levels, monitor vital signs and assist doctors during procedures and examinations. You'll also report to the doctor any changes in the patient's condition and provide information to the patient's family. As an ICU nurse, you need to be able to react quickly and calmly during intense situations and exhibit a high level of compassion.

What Education Do I Need?

To become a nurse, you need to earn a nursing diploma or an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing. According to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a majority of nurses have completed an associate or bachelor's degree program (www.bls.gov). You can earn an associate degree and become a registered nurse (RN) in two years. Topics you might study while pursuing this degree include anatomy, chemistry, biology, research and patient treatment protocols. You will also have an opportunity to work with patients in a clinic or hospital.

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree program should provide you with additional practical experience while you specialize in areas of nursing, such as cardiology or surgical care. While working as an ICU nurse, this education will prepare you to take care of critical heart patients or those recovering from difficult surgeries. This program takes four years to complete. Any of the diploma or undergraduate degrees will prepare you for the registered nursing National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). Nurses are required to pass this exam before states will allow them to work.

What Certification Is Available?

Voluntary certifications for ICU nurses are offered by a few professional organizations, including the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN). To qualify for their Critical Care Registered Nurse certification (CCRN), you must have two years of professional experience caring for patients in an ICU environment and pass an exam (www.aacn.org). Exam questions will focus on patient care knowledge and will require you to analyze a situation and determine the actions necessary to help the patient. The certification will need to be renewed every three years.

What Is the Job Outlook and Salary for this Profession?

The BLS estimates that the demand for registered nurses will increase by 16% between 2014 and 2024. Nurses with specialized training or those who hold a bachelor's degree will have more opportunities for employment. In 2015, the BLS reported that ICU nurses earned a median annual salary of $67,490.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurses and surgical nurses perform many duties that are comparable to the work that ICU nurses do. NICU nurses work with ill infants who require constant monitoring and care. Surgical nurses prepare patients for surgery, assist during the surgery and monitor the patient after surgery. They may determine a patient isn't recovering appropriately and need to take immediate action or assist with life saving measures if a patient has complications during surgery. The work of NICU and surgical nurses can be very stressful, and they need to communicate clearly, assess patients efficiently and may make decisions regularly that can save a patient's life. Like ICU nurses, they usually need a bachelor's degree.

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