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Nursing Career Path: What Is an ICU Nurse?

There are many different types of nursing professionals who may work in any given hospital, and their jobs may vary greatly depending on their specialty and nursing unit. One unique type of hospital nursing job is an ICU nurse, a health care professional who dedicated their career to helping patients in need of critical care.

What Does an ICU Nurse Do?

A nurse who works in the intensive care unit is responsible for restoring wellness to patients in critical condition. Because of the amount of attention and care each patient requires in the ICU, nurses who work here typically have a smaller caseload than the average nurse. Some responsibilities include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Setting up and monitoring medical equipment and devices, such as cardiac monitors, mechanical ventilators and alarms, oxygen delivery devices, transducers, or pressure lines.
  • Documenting a lot more of the patient’s chart than other types of nurses. According to Rasmussen College’s blog post about ICU nursing, even though ICU nurses have fewer patients, “they may have two to three times more documentation per patient — and keeping that information accurate is critical when passing the patient along to the next shift’s nurse.” This can include, as O*Net Online states, “documenting patients’ treatment plans, interventions — such as intubation, pacing a patient’s heart, or starting vasopressors, outcomes, or [care] plan revisions.”
  • Administering medications intravenously, through gastric tubes, orally, by injection, or by other methods.
  • Regularly checking and/or recording the following:
    • Vital signs every hour.
    • Head-to-toe assessments every 4 hours.
    • Lab draws daily (typically).
    • Repositioning and skin integrity check every 2 hours.
    • Wound care every shift. 

ICU nurses may choose to specialize in certain critical care areas, such as neonatal, pediatric, cardiac care, or surgical care.

ICU Nurses versus ER Nurses

While ICU nurses and ER nurses both care for patients with potentially life-threatening conditions, there are some major differences in the work environment and types of tasks that are handled in each unit:

ICU Nurses:

Patients stay in the ICU until their health has improved enough for them to recover, or until they pass. ICU nurses only treat patients with the most critical conditions, who are often ventilated, intubated, and/or on very high doses of pain medication. ICU nurses tend to be:

  • Good communicators
  • Not easily rattled
  • Extremely detail-oriented
  • Good at developing a rapport with their patients and their families

ER Nurses:

ER nurses, on the other hand, have to be ready to care for patients with trauma, illness, and injuries. As opposed to ICU nurses, who are focused on restoring their patients’ health, ER nurses are focused on transitioning their patients to their next level of care rather than their outcome. Therefore, ER nurses have to act quickly to stabilize patients so they can move on to their next destination, whether that’s home, radiology, the ICU, or another medical floor.

How to Become an ICU Nurse

While education and training are key for this type of nursing career, it’s important that ICU nurses have the right temperament for the job to be able to withstand the physical and emotional stress. Because ICU nurses have to provide specialized care to their patients, they require specialized training and certifications, including the following:

1.   Earning an undergraduate degree.

Those looking to pursue a career as an ICU nurse need to earn their Bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) to understand the principles of nursing and develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills needed for the position. Many BSN programs also require that students complete clinical observations to better understand the profession.

2.   Passing the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN).

Once BSN students have graduated, they must pass the NCLEX-RN exam — a computer-generated exam created by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) that’s designed to test graduates on the foundations of nursing — which is a requirement for any nurse looking to become licensed to work in the United States. After sitting for the exam, nursing students must then work for a minimum of two years to gain experience in the field.

3.   Earning a Master’s Degree from an Accredited MSN Program.

Nurses can earn their master’s degree from an accredited MSN program to advance their careers. These courses — and the additional clinical hours needed to complete their degree — blend theory with real-life scenarios nurses encounter on a daily basis. More than any other nurses, ICU nurses need to understand a wide variety of health care topics to ensure they can help their patients through any critical situations.

4.   Becoming Certified as a Critical Care Nurse by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN).

The Critical Care Nurse (CCRN) certification from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) establishes a baseline of knowledge to care for critically ill or injured patients. ICU nurses have many specialty options to choose from, including:

  • CCRN-K (Adult, Pediatric, or Neonatal) to influence care but not administer direct care to patients.
  • CCRN-E (Adult) to provide care to patients in remote locations.
  • CSC (Adult) to care for critically ill cardiac surgery patients.
  • ACNPC-AG (Adult-Geo) to care for very ill adult-gerontology patients.

Most employers usually require ICU nurses to meet continuing education requirements to remain up to date with the latest procedures and technological advances. AACN certifications must be renewed every three years.  

Job Outlook and Resources for ICU Nurses

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employment for all registered nurses, including critical care nurses, is expected to grow 7% in the next decade, which is faster than the average occupation. Now is a great time to start exploring this fast-growing field.

If you’re looking for professional resources to advance your career as an ICU nurse, you can explore the following organizations dedicated to advancing the nursing field:

  •  AACN. The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit association dedicated to offering unwavering professional and personal support in pursuit of the best possible patient care.
  • WFCCN. The World Federation of Critical Care Nurses, founded in Sydney, Australia, is an international federation of national critical care nursing associations from over 50 countries and regions.
  • SCCM. The Society of Critical Care Medicine is the largest non-profit medical organization dedicated to promoting excellence and consistency in the practice of critical care.

If you’re a health care professional looking to pick up per diem ICU shifts in your local area, sign up for Clipboard Health today to get started.

Cassie Damascus

Cassie focuses on public relations and communications. She is active in her local community’s entrepreneur ecosystem and founded “Women in New Orleans,” a women's professional development group.

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    A big thank you for your article post. Thanks Again. Awesome. Marisa Brewer Sverre

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