What Is a Critical Care Transport Nurse? A Look at This High-Adrenaline Role
By Noelle Hartt on 11/09/2023
Ambulances. Helicopters. Ships. For critical care transport nurses, these aren’t just modes of transportation—they’re patient treatment centers, too. And transport nurses work out of each, every day.
Have you ever wondered how critical care patients safely arrive to hospitals and medical facilities? Of course, we all know about ambulance services, paramedics and the emergency medical technicians (EMTs) who jump into action. But nurses have another array of skills than these first responders, and they can provide more advanced care.
Sometimes patients need nurses on the go.
Crises happen everywhere—and when they do, critical care transport nurses hit the road (or prepare for takeoff). Read on to hear about the incredible lengths nurses will go to—to save a life.
What is a critical care transport nurse, and what do they do?
A critical care transport nurse typically works as part of a larger critical care transport team. These brave professionals provide medical care in virtually every mode of transportation, treating patients who require advanced care.
Critical care transport nurses stabilize patients and administer treatment while they’re en route to a healthcare facility. These patients are often either critically ill or otherwise in critical condition. Performing life-saving medical intervention for high-acuity patients (AKA, those who require immediate or emergency care) is just another day at the office when you’re a critical care transport nurse.
But, that doesn’t mean you’ll exclusively respond to gruesome accident scenes.
Critical care transport nurses also monitor and stabilize patients in non-emergency situations. Say a patient needs to be transferred from one hospital to another. A critical care transport nurse comes for the ride to help ensure the patient arrives at the destination safely.
Critical care transport nurses also accompany patients moving between long-term care facilities, like nursing homes. (Sometimes, patients are transferred to different locations for specialized care.)
You can think of a critical care transport nurse as a rope, keeping patients tethered to safety while they race the clock to avoid disaster.
What is the difference between a critical care transport nurse and a flight nurse?
Flight nurses are a type of critical care nurse who act as the lead clinician on a helicopter or airplane. One key difference between flight nurses and other critical care transport nurses comes in the form of education and experience requirements.
Critical care transport nurse roles often require two years of bedside experience caring for critically ill patients. Flight nurses, on the other hand, are often required to have at least five years of clinical experience, in addition to specialty certifications that might take more time to complete.
Where does a critical care transport nurse work?
Critical care transport nurses are always on the go. While most other nurses work in brick-and-mortar healthcare facilities, critical care transport nurses whiz from patient to patient—on land, at sea and even mid-air. They frequently work out of mobile ICU ambulances, ships, planes and helicopters.
Government agencies, hospitals, independent transport companies, international medical organizations, long-term care facilities and the military all employ critical care transport nurses.
What is the difference between critical care transport nurses and other first responders?
Age, education and certification requirements for EMTs, paramedics and nurses vary from state to state. (For example, students as young as 16 can become EMTs in Pennsylvania.)1
Still, unlike paramedics and EMTs, critical care transport nurses need to obtain RN licensure. Additionally, critical care transport nurse roles usually require a minimum of two years of critical care bedside experience.3
How do I become a critical care transport nurse?
There are three key steps to becoming a critical care transport nurse, according to Nurse.org.2
1. Attend nursing school and become a registered nurse
The first step towards becoming a critical care transport nurse is to attend nursing school and complete either an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN degree) program.
Afterwards, you must take the NCLEX-RN® exam to obtain your RN license.
2. Gain experience caring for critically ill patients
You’ll need at least two years of professional emergency room or critical care experience to become a CCTN. These years can give you a solid foundation in life-saving techniques and help you decide if the critical care transport nursing role is really something you want.
3. Ensure your ACLS, PALS, and BLS certifications are up-to-date4
Before you can transport critically ill patients, you’ll need to obtain the following certifications:
- Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS)
- Basic Life Support (BLS)
- Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS)
Keep these certifications current for employment with critical care transport teams.
4. Explore professional organizations and networking opportunities for critical care transport nurses
Critical care transport nurses can network with other healthcare providers who specialize in emergency and critical care through the following organizations:
- Air & Surface Transport Nurses Association (ASTNA)
- American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN®)
- Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS®)
- Emergency Nursing Association (ENA)
Are there specialized certifications for critical care transport nurses?
Interestingly, you don’t have to hold a critical care transport-specific certification to become a critical care transport nurse, according to NurseJournal.org.5 But if you do want to get certified in this specialty, look into any of the following.3,5
- (CTRN®) certification
- (CCRN®) certification
- (CEN®) certification
- Certified Flight Registered Nurse (CFRN®) certification
What are the most important skills for a career in critical care transport nursing?
The ability to remain calm under pressure is a must for anyone working in the critical care transport field. These critical care nurses work in confined spaces, coordinating with other team members, all while resuscitating and saving critically ill and injured patients. You’ll need quick decision-making skills and expansive knowledge of emergency care to keep up in this fast-paced role.
In a way, critical care transport teams are running their own emergency department out of a moving vehicle. Critical-thinking skills are invaluable for this line of work. Not only will you apply the same skills and knowledge you’d need in the ER—your role will also demand exceptional strengths in communication, coordination and, of course, teamwork.
Is a career as a critical care transport nurse job right for you?
Do you work well under pressure? Can you stay calm in an emergency? Are you craving a career where no two workdays are the same? And, most importantly, are you looking to make a positive impact? If your answer is yes, then a critical care transport role might be exactly what you’re looking for.
As a critical care transport nurse, your work means the difference between life and death. It’s up to you to think fast, and act faster, for your patients and their families.
If you like the high-stakes rush of saving lives, a career as a critical care transport nurse could be just the role you’ve been looking for. It all starts with earning your RN license. Learn more about becoming an RN and other nursing education opportunities at Rasmussen University.
But this role definitely isn’t for everyone. Nursing is such a huge industry, there really is something for everybody. If critical care transport nursing doesn’t sound right role for you, learn about other nursing specialties in our article, “25 Types of Nurses Employers Are Looking to Hire.”
NCLEX-RN® is a registered trademark of National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc. CORPORATION PENNSYLVANIA 111 EAST WACKER DRIVE SUITE 2900 CHICAGO ILLINOIS 60601
AACN® is a registered trademark of AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF CRITICAL-CARE NURSES, INC. CORPORATION CALIFORNIA 27071 Aliso Creek Road ALISO VIEJO CALIFORNIA 92656
CEN® is a registered trademark of Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing CORPORATION ILLINOIS 1900 Spring Rd. Oak Brook ILLINOIS 60523
AAMS® is a registered trademark of Association of Air Medical Services CORPORATION IOWA 909 N. Washington Street, Suite 410 Alexandria VIRGINIA 22314
CCRN® is a registered trademark of AACN CERTIFICATION CORPORATION CORPORATION BY CHANGE OF NAME FROM CALIFORNIA 27071 Aliso Creek Road ALISO VIEJO CALIFORNIA 92656
CTRN® is a registered trademark of Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing non-profit corporation ILLINOIS 1900 Spring Road, Suite 501 Oak Brook ILLINOIS 60523
1 EMTprep, Pennsylvania - EMTprep, [accessed October 2023] https://emtprep.com/extra/state-nremt-info/pennsylvania
2 Gaines, Kathleen. 4 Steps to Becoming a Critical Care Transport Nurse, [accessed October 2023] https://nurse.org/resources/critical-care-transport-nurse/
3 Feeney, Ann. How to Become a Critical Care Transport Nurse, Nurse Journal, [accessed October 2023] https://nursejournal.org/careers/critical-care-transport-nurse/how-to-become/
4 Critical Care Transport Nurse, [accessed October 2023] https://dailynurse.com/critical-care-transport-nurse/
5 Frequently Asked Questions, [accessed October 2023] https://www.astna.org/page/FAQs