The world of trauma nursing is high stakes and high rewards. Patients of all ages arrive around the clock with serious, life-threatening injuries that require immediate attention. Injuries are often graphic or even gruesome.
The trauma bay is a fast-paced, high-pressure environment. Care is delivered and coordinated by a large team of medical professionals working simultaneously. If this sounds appealing, then you might be well-suited to the specialty of trauma nursing. In this article, we will discuss the following:
- What is a trauma nurse?
- What do trauma nurses do?
- Where do trauma nurses work?
- What are specific types of trauma nurses?
- How do you become a trauma nurse in 3 steps?
- What are additional requirements of trauma nurses?
- What is the salary and career outlook for trauma nurses?
What is a trauma nurse?
A trauma nurse cares for patients who have serious, life-threatening injuries. They work with patients brought in through the Emergency Room that cannot wait for treatment due to the severity of their injuries. They work with other trauma team members to stabilize patients so they can be transferred to other areas of the hospital.
What are the qualities of a successful trauma nurse?
Caring for a trauma patient is a complex endeavor. When treating critical injuries, trauma nurses need to be able to act quickly and decisively. Prioritization and organization skills are critical. Excellent trauma nurses must be able to work well with team members and follow directions from the trauma team lead.
Patients may have multiple injuries that are startling to look at – a successful trauma nurse should be able to navigate the adrenaline and shock of treating a serious injury. Because patients cannot always be saved, a strong trauma nurse must be able to handle the stress and sadness of a poor outcome.
What do trauma nurses do?
Depending on the type of injury, trauma nurses may do a variety of tasks during any given shift including:
- Medication administration
- IV fluid administration
- Wound care
- Blood transfusions
- First aid
- Report abuse/neglect
- Work with law enforcement
- Retrieve/use medical devices and supplies
As with most nursing specialties, trauma care comes with its own unique set of documentation, so trauma nurses regularly document on multiple forms and assessments during a typical shift.
A day in the life of a trauma nurse
The truth is, there is no “typical” shift for trauma nurses. Workload and daily tasks vary depending on the types of patients that come to the trauma bay and the injuries sustained.
One day you might be working exclusively with adults, other days you might work with a mix of adult and pediatric patients. You might care for patients involved in motor vehicle accidents or who have been victims of violent crimes.
While the triage process for any patient is similar or even formulaic, the outcomes can be wildly different – you’re sure to experience variety throughout your day!
Common conditions treated by trauma nurses
Many different types of injuries can be seen in a trauma bay – the common factor is that these injuries are potentially life threatening. Some of the more common trauma scenarios a nurse might experience include:
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Gun shot wounds
- Heavy equipment/machinery injuries
- Exposure (hypo/hyperthermia)
Where do trauma nurses work?
While most hospitals have an Emergency Room, not every hospital has a trauma bay or trauma team. Smaller, remote hospitals in less populated communities are not likely to have a trauma bay. Trauma teams are more likely to be found in large hospitals that service metropolitan areas.
What are the specific types of trauma nurses?
There is not a specific type of trauma nurse. Trauma nurses are expected to have a broad understanding of all trauma-related injuries. However, nurses with clinical experience in other specialty areas might find that their skill-set is useful in the trauma arena.
Closely related fields
Trauma nurses have often worked in other critical care areas including:
- Intensive Care Unit (ICU) or Critical Care Unit (CCU) – includes patients that have life-threatening illnesses that require constant monitoring or continuous treatments.
- Emergency Room (ER) – involves the triage and stabilization of patients when they first arrive to the hospital to get their medical needs addressed.
- Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) – similar to ICU or CCU nurses, PICU nurses care for patients with life-threatening illnesses in the pediatric population.
- Burn Units – involves the care of patients that have extensive burns of varying severity. Burn patients often require meticulous wound care, IV pain medications, and aggressive IV fluid resuscitation.
If you already have experience in one of these specialties, you could very likely transition to trauma nursing with relative ease.
How do you become a trauma nurse in 3 steps?
While there are many pieces to learn along the way, becoming a trauma nurse can be broken down into three steps:
Step 1: Become a Registered Nurse
The first step is all about education and licensing. It is important to check with your state board of nursing to make sure you have the correct education and licensing requirements to become a trauma nurse.
Earn a BSN Degree
There are many different pathways to pick from. Choose what’s best for you when it comes to your short- and long-term goals.
- Traditional BSN: This degree is spread out over the course of 4 years. It involves prerequisite and clinical education often intended for full time students.
- RN to BSN: For students that already have an RN license through an associates or alternative program. This process allows working, experienced nurses to obtain their formal degree.
- Accelerated BSN (ABSN): For students that have a bachelor’s degree in another area of study (e.g., English). This program fast-tracks the BSN process with full time intensive study spread out over the course of 1 to 2 years.
Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam
Completing a BSN program makes you eligible to take the NCLEX exam, which will grant your RN license upon passing. The test determines if you are ready to practice as an entry-level nurse. It is computerized and unique to each learner.
Questions are delivered with increasing difficulty depending on a student’s progress through the exam. It is pass/fail and can be completed in as little as 75 questions or as many as 145. The exam time limit is 5 hours.
Step 2: Accumulate experience
While a new graduate nurse with no work history or clinical experience will be unlikely to work as a trauma nurse right away, there are other specialty areas to start with that will help you test the waters of trauma nursing. Look for positions in Emergency Rooms, Operating Rooms, ICUs, CCUs, or Medical-Surgical Units.
Helpful skills and experience
Look for opportunities to participate on Code teams or ask your Charge Nurse to assign you trauma patients. If you have the opportunity to float to the ER during times of high volume, volunteer for those assignments to give you more experience with triage and fast-paced, high-stress environments.
If possible, obtain Advanced CPR training (ACLS/PALS) rather than Basic Life Support (BLS) training.
Step 3: Obtain certifications
There are many different types of certifications available to nurses looking to expand their education beyond a degree. Becoming a Trauma Certified Registered Nurse is a great option for nurses that are passionate about trauma nursing. This certification is obtained through the BCEN (Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing) and requires an active/unrestricted RN license, 2 years of clinical experience, and passing their proctored exam. Renewal of this certification is required every 4 years.
Other related certifications that can be obtained through the BCEN include:
- Certified Emergency Nurse (CEN)
- Certified Flight Registered Nurse (CFRN)
- Certified Pediatric Emergency Nurse (CPEN)
- Certified Transport Registered Nurse (CTRN)
What are additional requirements of trauma nurses?
In addition to the other skills already mentioned, nurses must be aware that trauma patients have the potential to deteriorate quickly. Detailed assessment and observation skills are required to be a successful trauma nurse.
New or worsening symptoms need to be reported promptly and accurately to the trauma team so that appropriate treatments can be ordered.
What is the salary & career outlook for trauma nurses?
Job prospects for Registered Nurses across all specialty fields are promising. Over the coming years, the need for adequate nursing care is projected to increase with the aging population. Similarly, older nurses will be retiring out of the profession, leaving larger vacancies than previous decades.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates an average of 194,500 job openings for registered nurses over the next decade. Job growth for RNs is expected to be 9% between 2020 and 2030.
The annual wage for a hospital-based registered nurse is estimated at $82,750, with the top 10% of earners making roughly $120,250. Check out the highest paying states and cities for more information.
Sometimes hospitals will reimburse nurses for certification fees, which can also assist in obtaining promotions or wage increases. Pay attention to other benefits employers offer such as childcare services, tuition reimbursement, and travel costs.
Discover your true salary range
Receive a free salary estimate in minutes. Then get matched with nursing jobs to pay it.
Many factors contribute to job satisfaction – adequate staffing, salary, benefits, administrative support, or tuition reimbursement just to name a few.
If you’re looking to obtain a trauma position, pay particular attention to your coworkers. Trauma nursing is a team endeavor. If professional relationships are poor and team members do not treat one another with respect, you are unlikely to have a high level of job satisfaction. Salary and other benefits shouldn’t be the only deciding factors.
If you’re already a working RN and want to switch careers, look at your current specialty and consider whether you work in a closely related field to trauma. Look for opportunities to care for trauma patients or participate in code teams. Talk to other nurses that have worked in trauma bays to see what advice they might have.
Let your nursing supervisor know if you’re open to floating to the Emergency Room or Critical Care units. If you choose to pursue a career opportunity in this specialty, know that you will be on the frontlines helping patients with critical injuries when they are at their most vulnerable.
You will see patients on what may be the worst day of their life. However, with that stress comes tremendous reward as you will help save countless lives during your time in the trauma bay.
When you’re ready to switch careers, we have the career resources you need to succeed!
Top trauma nurse jobs on Incredible Health
Philadelphia, PA | $49,900 to $105,000 /year
King of Prussia, PA | $49,900 to $80,000 /year
Clovis, CA | $65,000 to $110,000 /year
Baltimore, MD | $61,000 to $128,000 /year
Falls Church, VA | $69,000 to $109,000 /year
Tired of applying for nursing jobs?
With Incredible Health, hospitals apply to YOU.