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Everything You Need to Know About Critical Care Nursing

photo of a nurse auscultating on a patient in a hospital bed

A few years ago, when you heard the word “hero” you first thought might have been about someone in a cape. These days, we know many of our heroes wear scrubs. If you want to make a difference in the world and in your community, consider the role of a critical care nurse. Critical care nurses work with people fighting life threatening medical emergencies. Their hard work and passion has an enormous impact on patients as well as their loved ones.

But what does a critical care nurse actually do day to day? What does it take to become a critical care nurse? We’ve put together an outline of everything you need to know about critical care nursing. Whether you are already in nursing school considering a specialty, or just beginning to think about a future in healthcare, take a few minutes to explore critical care nursing, a profession with unique boots-on-the-ground impact on people in some of their biggest moments of crisis. 

What is a critical care nurse?

Critical care nurses are registered nurses (RNs) that treat patients with acute and serious illnesses or injuries. The term “critical” is used by healthcare providers to communicate broadly about the severity of a patient’s condition. Typically, a patient that requires “critical care” has unstable vital signs, may be unconscious, and has unfavorable indicators for a positive health outcome. In less technical language, “critical care” is given to patients who are at a significantly higher risk of not surviving their illness or injury. 

Critical care nurses have been specially trained to handle these emergency care situations. They provide both important medical care and monitoring, as well as support to patients and their families. Critical care nurses work in a very high stress environment in a dynamic and highly important role.

“Critical care nurses are tasked with some of the highest responsibilities in the profession of nursing,” explains Nicholas McGowan, a nursing educator at Critical Care Academy and experienced intensive care unit (ICU) nurse. “This is where the greatest breadth of knowledge, competency, and skill are required in order to keep the patient alive and comfortable with their dignity intact.”

Where do critical care nurses work?

Critical care nurses work in many locations—but you’ll primarily find them in a hospital setting. Many critical care nurses work in a hospital’s general ICU, but emergency departments, neonatal ICUs, pediatric ICUs, cardiac care units, telemetry units, managed care facilities, urgent care clinics, outpatient surgery centers and recovery rooms may also require specially trained critical care nurses.

Critical care nurses may specialize in adult critical care, pediatric critical care, or geriatric critical care depending on which patient population they want to work with.

What are common duties of a critical care nurse?

Critical care nurses, like all registered nurses, provide essential medical services including monitoring and evaluating vital signs, administering medication, reacting to any change in a patient’s condition, and using a variety of technical medical equipment.

One of the biggest distinctions between critical care nursing and other nursing specialties is the typical patient load. Given the serious state of their patients and the extra attention required to make sure they remain in stable condition, critical care nurses typically have a smaller number of patients to tend to over the course of a shift. This also means they’re often the first to respond when a patient’s condition takes a turn for the worse and must work quickly to take appropriate measures.

In addition to these medical responsibilities, critical care nurses play an essential role as patient advocates. Critical care nurses work with patients who are at their most vulnerable. They must respect the rights and directives of the patient at times when the patient may not be able to communicate or represent themselves. Critical care nurses ensure that the patient or their loved ones understand the realities of their medical condition and potential outcomes in order to make the most informed choices.

What skills do critical care nurses need?

Critical care nurses need a thorough understanding of medicine, biology, chemistry, anatomy, medical technology, and patient care. Critical care nurses rely on their detailed technical knowledge to respond to crisis situations and unforeseen complications. Critical care nurses need the ability to think quickly and respond appropriately to whatever they encounter.

In addition to their medical and scientific expertise, critical care nurses need to be strong communicators in order to work with a large team of healthcare providers, advocate for patient rights and directives, and educate patients and family members about the medical condition of the patient and the care being provided.

The nature of “critical care” means that many patients critical care nurses treat do not recover from their illness or injury. A critical care nurse needs to learn how to reconcile providing the best possible medical care for a patient who still does not survive. Critical care nurses need the ability to find balance between the challenges of their work, and fulfillment and joy in other areas of their life.

“Critical care nurses are some of the most resilient in the profession of nursing,” says McGowan. “You have to strengthen your mental and emotional resolve.”

Critical care nurses are some of the most highly respected professionals in the field of nursing, and rightfully so! They need a wide set of skills all at a very high level with no room for error or doubt.

What qualities do the best critical care nurses share?

Critical care nurses need to work seamlessly with a team of healthcare providers in high stress environments. Because of this people who go into critical care nursing tend to be naturally collaborative and interested in working closely with other people.

Critical care nurses are highly respected individuals, but most individuals in this profession are motivated by a strong internal desire to help people in their most vulnerable and isolating moments. They share deep compassion and dedication to fighting tirelessly for others.

People who become critical care nurses also share a commitment to lifelong learning. Medical knowledge, technology, and best practices are constantly evolving. Curiosity and focus help critical care nurses in their dynamic professional lives.

How do you become a critical care nurse?

To start, aspiring critical care nurses will first need to become a registered nurse. You can do this by earning either an Associate’s degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and subsequently meeting state requirements for nursing licensure. Many critical care nurses enter the specialty immediately after finishing their education. That said, given the relatively intense nature of their work, you may want to first gain experience or at least a better feel for the work—job shadowing and student nursing clinical opportunities are an excellent starting point.

Interested in learning more about nursing?

If you are interested in taking the first step toward a critical care nursing career, visit the Rasmussen College Professional Nursing degree page. Not sure if critical care is right for you? Keep in mind that critical care nursing is only one specialty within the enormous and important field of nursing. There are plenty of other nursing roles out there you may find appealing—our article, “Top 25 Types of Nurses Employers Are Looking to Hire” is a good starting point for learning more about your options.

Anjali Stenquist

Anjali Stenquist is a content writer for Collegis Education who writes student focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She is passionate about helping students of all backgrounds navigate higher education.

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