Critical care nurses care for the sickest patients in the hospital, often only one or two at a time. Some larger hospitals will further break down their critical care units by specialty or age: Medical Intensive Care Unit (ICU), Surgical ICU, Pediatric ICU and Cardiac ICU to name a few. Many smaller hospitals will combine all critical patients in one large intensive care unit. In addition to working in an ICU, critical care nurses work in emergency rooms, on medical transport teams and with the military on the battlefield.
Patients on these units often require a great deal of care, so critical care nurses learn a considerable amount of advanced monitoring and therapeutic skills. Many nurses report that working in this setting is very stressful because of how quickly a patient’s status can deteriorate.
Advanced technological equipment is often utilized in the critical care environment. Nurses will learn to be proficient in mechanical ventilators, intra-aortic balloon pumps, arterial lines, ventricular assist devices (LVAD and RVAD), and other hemodynamic monitoring systems. Since these devices aren’t taught in most nursing programs, training is provided on the job. Ongoing education is necessary for nurses to keep their skills up to date.
General medical or surgical nursing experience is usually required before progressing to the critical care unit, though in some situations, entry-level nurses will begin working in critical care.
The American Association of Critical Care Nurses offers several certification programs, depending on which patient population you work with and the subspecialty in which you practice. There are specific eligibility requirements that must be met to sit for the exam. Certification is not required to work as a critical care nurse and can be difficult to obtain.
Organizations like the National Flight Nurses Association and The Emergency Nurses Association can provide standards and guidance to nurses working or interested in working in those subspecialties as well.