Intensive care unit (ICU) beds in the United States already number more than 20 per 100,000 residents and are only expected to increase over time. With this growing need, the demand for nurses to care for these patients is also quickly rising. Read on to learn more about the field of ICU nursing, and how to pursue a career as an ICU nurse.
In this article, we will explore:
- What is an ICU nurse?
- What do ICU nurses do?
- Where do ICU nurses work?
- What are specific types of ICN nurses?
- How do you become an ICU nurse?
- What are the additional requirements for ICU nurses?
- What are the salary and career outlooks for ICU nurses?
What is an ICU nurse?
ICU nurses or critical care nurses are highly specialized and trained healthcare personnel who provide nursing care to patients with life-threatening illnesses or conditions. They provide specialized experience, knowledge, and skills that patients need to survive or de-escalate care. ICU nurses are trained to make split-second decisions and act quickly when a patient’s status changes. Their primary work environment in the hospital is in specialized care units. Typically, ICU patients need a high level of care, and most of them are admitted to the hospital.
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What do ICU nurses do?
ICU nurses work in challenging and complex fields in their nursing profession. They have the primary duty to provide lifesaving care to patients fighting for their lives. They are highly trained to provide exceptional care for patients who depend on 24/7 nursing care. A patient in ICU is often ventilated, intubated, and can be on several life-saving machines and medications. ICU nurses are at the top of their game and well-versed with all aspects of specialized care to restore their patients’ health and wellness. Some of the specific responsibilities of ICU nurses include:
- Evaluating and monitoring of patient’s progress and identification of any sudden or subtle changes in the patient’s medical condition
- Administering medications intravenously by injection or via gastric tubes
- Delivering regular updates of patient’s progress to doctors, patients, and their families
- Performing approved diagnostic or therapeutic procedures according to the patient’s clinical status
- Responding to health emergencies when called upon and alert appropriate doctors
- Evaluating patient’s laboratory data and vital signs to determine emergency intervention needs
- Caring for patient needs throughout their recovery journey in ICU
- Advocating for patients’ and families’ needs
- Providing emotional support to patients and their families
- Setting up and monitoring medical equipment and devices like medical ventilators, oxygen delivery devices, transducers, and pressure lines.
- Assessing patients pain level and sedation requirements
- Maintaining patient records
Where do ICU nurses work?
As the name suggests, critical care nurses primarily work at the ICU departments of health care facilities. ICUs are well sanitized and properly lit medical centers with strict adherence to health and safety. ICU nurses often move about between the intensive care unit, emergency department, operating theatre, and other hospital specialty wards. ICU nurses typically follow a standard shifting schedule that features morning, afternoon, and night timetables. There are also other shifting schedules, depending on the hospital and region.
What are specific types of ICU nurses?
The following are the different types of critical care nurses:
- Postoperative care ICU unit nurses – These nurses work with patients who experience pain following surgery. They typically have exceptional knowledge of anesthesiology.
- Pediatric ICU nurses – These nurses work in pediatric intensive care units and provide care to critically ill or injured children.
- Emergency room ICU nurses – ER nurses work with patients that need urgent treatment. They work long shifts, usually up to 40 hours a week.
- Neonatal ICU nurses – Neonatal nurses work with newborn babies who face a life-threatening disease or condition.
- Cardiac care unit ICU nurses – These nurses work with the most critically ill patients. They boast of exceptional experience and education in the medical field.
- Cardiothoracic ICU nurses – These nurses work with patients suffering from severe heart conditions. They handle a maximum of 2 patients.
Closely Related Types of Nurses
- Flight nurses– These nurses work with critically ill patients who need to be evacuated by air in order to recieve specialized treatment.
- Neuro nurses– These nurses work with patients who suffer from neuro problems such as sleep, sexuality, or communication problems.
- Surgical ICU nurses– These nurses work with patients who don’t have a prognosis immediately after surgery.
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How do you become an ICU nurse?
Step 1: Become a registered nurse
The first step to becoming an ICU nurse is to be a registered nurse (RN). Before you become a registered nurse, you have to graduate with a BSN or an ADN from an accredited nursing program. Afterward, you must pass the NCLEX examination.
There are bridge programs that allow you to advance your education level in less time. One example is the ADN to BSN program. To become a more attractive candidate you may consider obtaining an advanced degree like an MSN. There are bridge programs to help cut down on time on school. There are programs such as the BSN to MSN and RN to MSN (if you are already a licensed RN).
Step 2: Accumulate experience
You will need at least two years of nursing experience in a position specializing in intensive care nursing to become an ICU nurse.
Step 3: Obtain ICU certifications
Because of the challenges and responsibility that come with operating in an ICU, hospitals require various certifications that guarantee they are hiring the best quality nurses. Many nurses who want to advance their careers are now turning to certifications. Additionally, certifications are a great way to increase ICU nurse salaries. Four certifications specifically constitute nursing in critical care conditions:
- CRRN (Adult) – Nurses with this certification can provide adequate care for critically ill adult patients. With this certification, you can work in general ICUs, surgical ICUs, trauma units, transport and flight operations, and cardiac care units.
- CCRN (Adult) – This specialty certification is for nurses who provide direct care to acutely/critically ill adult patients.
- CCRN (Pediatric)- CCRN for pediatrics offers critical care for children. You can work in ICUs, trauma units, transport, and logistics.
- CCRN (Neonatal) -This is a certification for nursing related to newborn critical care. You are certified to work in ICUs, trauma units, transport, and logistics.
- CMC (Adult) – CMC unit certifications are required for nurses involved in cardiac care. These nurses are certified to work in electrophysiology units, heart failure clinics, general ICUs, and home care.
According to the AACN website, eligible clinical practice hours must be completed in a US-based or Canadian-based facility, or any other facility determined to be comparable to US standards of critical care nursing practice.
What Specialty Should I Be?
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What are the additional requirements for an ICU nurses?
Once you get a license to practice as a critical care nurse, you should also complete continuing education units. These courses will equip you with the latest knowledge, skills, and medical industry trends. Many employers require you to maintain ongoing education to retain your position.
What are the salary and career outlooks for an ICU nurse?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses’ employment is projected to grow 7% from 2019 to 2029. This rate is faster than the average for all occupations. The growth is fueled by increasing rates of chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes and an increase in emerging diseases like the current coronavirus pandemic. The average salary for an ICU nurse is $90,855.
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ICU nursing career is one of the most rewarding callings with excellent job growth prospects and higher pay as enumerated above. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 3,059,800 registered nurses in the US in 2018. It is projected that by 2028, there will be a need for an additional 371,500 nurses, and with the aging population and recent COVID 19 pandemic, the number is expected to be higher.
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