Critical Care Nursing Degree

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What is Critical Care Nursing?

Critical Care Nursing is a branch of nursing emphasizing the care of unstable or critically ill patients following surgery, life threatening disease, or extensive injuries.  A Critical Care Nurse can specialize in a number of nursing fields and work in an array of environments including: medical intensive care units, surgical intensive care units, general intensive care units, coronary care units, trauma intensive care units, burn units, cardiothoracic intensive care units, pediatric intensive care units, and emergency room trauma rooms.

Critical Care Nursing involves caring for critically ill patients by way of mechanical ventilation and intravenous medication.  A Critical Care Nurse will work directly with patients and help identify and solve problems with an attending physician.  The Critical Care Nursing profession fuses compassion, technology, science, and medicine into a fulfilling vocation.

What Do Critical Care Nurses Do?

A critical care nurse share many of the same job responsibilities as an emergency room nurse or staff nurse with the added training for a myriad of critical care specializations.  Critical care nurses will help physicians to actively monitor patients, provide necessary treatments, and provide basic healthcare.

CCN’s will be tasked with monitoring and documenting changes in a patient’s health situation.  Since patients in a critical care ward or intensive care unit are often exceptionally high need individuals, the frequency and intensity of care is more pronounced than many other types of nursing.  Changes in health will prompt immediate communication to the charge nurse or attending physician to help determine the next course of action.

Critical care nurses may be called to quickly assess patients, succinctly communicate, and respond to emergencies accordingly.  CCN’s will be adept at performing CPR, First Aid, and the utilization of AED’s.   Many Critical Care Nurses are customer-facing and directly engage with family members to explain complex medical situations and procedures in plain English with empathy and compassion.

How Do I Become a Critical Care Nurse?

In order to become a Critical Care Nurse, you will first need to obtain an RN, LPN, or LVN.  The 6-step process to become a Registered Nurse is detailed on our RN resource page here to help you better understand the exact steps of the process.  Some hospitals, clinics, and healthcare organizations will allow a Licensed Practice Nurse or Licensed Vocational Nurse to become a Critical Care Nurse but these situation are not necessarily the norm.

Top Degrees for Critical Care Nurses

You can earn a nursing degree online or on-campus depending on what works best for you and the school’s academic offerings.  In either case, earning any one of the following degrees will set you up to become a critical care nurse in your state of residence after successfully completing your state’s licensure requirements, successfully passing trade-specific standardized tests, and obtaining a license to practice in your state.

Certifications in Nursing: LVN, LPN

Certificate Program Duration: Typically, 12 months of full-time matriculation

Associate Degrees in Nursing: ADN, AN, ASN, AAS

Associate Degree Program Duration: Typically, 2 years of full-time matriculation

Bachelor Degree in Nursing: BSN, LPN to BSN, BN, BScN, LPN to RN, LVP to BSN, Accelerated BSN, RN to BSN

Bachelor Degree Program Duration: Typically, 2-4 years of full-time matriculation

Master Degrees in Nursing: LPN to MSN, MSN, LVN to MSN, BSN to MSN, CNM, RN to MSN, CRNA, CNS, CNP

Master Degree Program Duration: Typically, 2 years of additional full-time matriculation

Doctorate in Nursing: DNP, DNS, PhD in Philosophy

Doctorate Program Duration: Typically, 2-4 years of additional full-time matriculation

Recommended Professional Certificates for a Critical Care Nurse

  • Critical Care Nursing - CCRN
  • Pediatric Advanced Life Support - PALS
  • Advanced Cardiac Life Support - ACLS

Top 5 Job Responsibilities of a Critical Care Nurse

We have culled the top five job responsibilities from a recent survey from the United States Department of Labor.  The DOL surveyed critical care nurses from around the country to help shed light on their job duties and work responsibilities irrespective of job title variations.  The top 5 responses from critical care nurses include:

  1. Establish & monitor medical devices and equipment
  2. Evaluate patients' vital signs or laboratory data to determine emergency intervention requirements
  3. Assess pain levels or sedation requirements via treatment plan.
  4. Monitor patients for improvements or degradation in health and perform appropriate interventions
  5. Administer necessary medications (via IV, orally, injection, gastric tubing, etc.)

Common Job Titles for Critical Care Nurses

We have complied is list of the most common job titles of critical care nurses from across the country.  While the job titles may vary from region to region, the job responsibilities may be the same for a critical care nurse.  The employment arrangement and breadth of job responsibilities have a direct impact on the overall job activities and work responsibilities.  The most common job titles for a critical care nurse include:

  • Burn Center Nurse
  • Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory Registered Nurse
  • Catheterization Laboratory Senior Manager
  • Critical Care Registered Nurse (CCRN)
  • Critical Care Unit Manager
  • Adult Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Intensive Care Unit Staff Nurse
  • Intensive Care Unit Nurse
  • Registered Nurse Supervisor (RN Supervisor)
  • Staff Nurse
  • Staff Nurse, Intensive Care Unit Resource Team

Areas of Specialization for a Critical Care Nurse

Critical care nurses will often specialize within a particular discipline of healthcare as part of their training programs.  Specializing allows larger hospitals and medical organizations to rely on a few key individuals as the need arises.  A list of common areas of specialization for a critical care nurse include:

  • Critical Care: CCU, SICU, and MICU
  • Endocrinology
  • Cardiology - Hypertension, Heart Failure, Myocardial Infarctions
  • Trauma
  • Neurology
  • Transplantation
  • Rehabilitation
  • Cardiothoracic Surgery
  • Nephrology
  • Pulmonology - Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)
  • Oncology: Solid Organ Tumors & Hematological
  • Neurosurgery

Where Do Critical Care Nurses Work?

The overwhelming majority of critical care nurses work in a hospital with a critical care unit and/or intensive care unit.  That being said, there are critical care nurse specialists that work as transport nurses helping critically injured patients before arriving at a hospital or critical care unit.

Employment & Nursing Specializations

Students earning a degree in critical care nursing will have the choice to remain in critical care or toggle to similar fields.  The pace and demand of critical care nurses are similar from military installations to private hospitals.  Alternatively, students who become a Registered Nurse can leverage that to migrate to various healthcare specialties.  Examples of such specialties include: virologist, medical biologist, medical assistant, biological technician, diagnostic medical sonographer, biomedical engineer, toxicologist, microbiologist, virologist, medical scientist, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, radiobiologist, or vascular technologist.

Critical Care Nursing Salary & Career Outlook

The annual median income for a critical care nurse $68,450 or $32.91 per hour with an expected growth rate of 14% which is twice the national average for all jobs during the coming decade.  The U.S. Department of Labor estimate 1,088,400 job openings for critical care nurses during this same reporting period.

Similarly, Registered Nursing jobs are anticipated to spike 16% through 2026.  Overall, the degree of stability and professional opportunities in critical care appear to be growing steadily.  The demand for highly trained nurses will continue to increase as quality care and accessibility of healthcare grows.

Additional Resources for Critical Care Nurses

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Career Summary: Critical care nursing Major




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