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Critical care nurse: Salary, job description, and outlook

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One of the most exciting things about becoming a nurse is that it allows you to make a direct, positive impact on your patients’ lives. Working as a nurse, you may play a role in literally saving someone’s life. This is certainly true of those who work in critical care nursing, a field that entails providing medical interventions for patients who are critically injured or battling life-threatening illnesses.


Critical care nursing can be an ideal fit for anyone who loves to provide direct patient care and thrives in high-pressure, high-stakes environments. As you contemplate whether this branch of nursing is right for you, consider some additional factors, including the critical care nurse salary, basic job description, and key skills. This comprehensive guide is for anyone who wishes to have a career in critical care nursing.

What is critical care nursing?  

A good place to start is by distinguishing this field from other branches of nursing.

What is critical care nursing: Defining the term

Critical care nursing is a specialized discipline that focuses on the care of patients who have sustained critical injuries or are contending with life-threatening illnesses. The role of the critical care nurse is to provide advanced care to patients in an intensive care unit (ICU), emergency room (ER), cardiac care unit, or recovery unit. Also note that some critical care nurses may focus on helping younger patients; these nurses typically work in a pediatric or neonatal ICU.


A defining feature of critical care nursing is that it involves working with patients and family members in highly stressful situations. The stakes can be life or death, and it is not unusual for patients and their loved ones to be highly emotional or distraught. Additionally, critical care nurses may be required to make decisions or administer care promptly when timeliness is a decisive factor. This can create further stress or anxiety in the care environment.


Critical care nurses work closely with other health care providers, including physicians, surgeons, technicians, and other nurses.


In addition to administering care, critical care nurses may be called upon to act as patient advocates, representing their patients’ ultimate wishes. For example, when a patient has a health care directive stating a desire to remain on life support for a certain amount of time, critical care nurses may be responsible for following those wishes.

Where do critical care nurses work?

Critical care nurses usually work in hospital settings. However, there is also a need for critical care nursing in outpatient surgery centers, private physician practices, and managed care centers. In some situations, critical care nurses may even be hired to administer care or monitor life support equipment in private residences, typically when the patient’s condition is considered terminal.

What is the critical care nurse job description?

As you consider whether becoming a critical care nurse is right for you, you may have some additional questions about day-to-day tasks and responsibilities. Of course, the critical care nurse job description can vary depending on the practice environment, but critical care nurses can generally expect the following kinds of daily duties:

Critical care nurse responsibilities: An overview

  •  Cleaning and bandaging patient wounds. Often, critical care nurses treat patients who have either just had surgery or been involved in a serious accident. As such, wound care is a significant part of the job. Through diligent oversight of wounds and regular changing of bandages, critical care nurses can help prevent infection.
  • Monitoring life support equipment. The critical care nurse job description may also involve monitoring the condition of patients who are attached to lifesaving equipment, including breathing machines, ventilators, or feeding tubes. The nurse’s job is to ensure that these machines are operating correctly.
  • Responding to changes in patient condition. While monitoring patients and keeping an eye on life support equipment, critical care nurses may notice significant changes in the patient’s condition. Whether it is a change in vital signs, the presence of infection, or something else, nurses are tasked with noting any changes, communicating them to the attending physician, and taking decisive action as needed.
  • Revising patient care plans. Surgeons or physicians put care plans in place with input from the nursing team. As the patient’s condition worsens or improves, however, critical care nurses have some authority to revise the treatment plan on the fly.
  • Administering emergency care. A patient in critical condition may experience sudden changes in vital signs or have cardiac episodes. Critical care nurses may need to be prepared with “crash carts” or other emergency interventions.
  • Counseling patients and families. The critical care nurse job description also entails communicating with patients and their family members, keeping them informed about the treatment plan, prognosis, and more. Sometimes, this may mean delivering unwelcome news and helping patients and loved ones navigate gut-wrenching decisions while under intense stress.
  • Providing resources for patient recovery. Recovering patients often require ongoing attention, such as physical therapy or other rehab services. In some instances, they may need hospice care. Critical care nurses can play a vital role in providing these external resources for patients and family members.
  • Advocating for patient wishes. The critical care nurse job description also includes understanding patient wishes about resuscitation and life support technology, religious beliefs, and personal preferences and advocating for those positions as necessary.

Becoming a critical care nurse means remaining calm and thoughtful even in stressful circumstances, making smart decisions, and offering emotional stability for patients and their families. These responsibilities are just a few examples of what you can expect from the critical care nurse job description.

What are the critical care nurse requirements?

If you feel drawn to this branch of nursing, the next step may be to consider what it takes to become a critical care nurse in terms of education and certification. Here is an overview of the standard critical care nurse requirements.

What are the critical care nurse requirements?

If you feel drawn to this branch of nursing, the next step may be to consider what it takes to become a critical care nurse in terms of education and certification. Here is an overview of the standard critical care nurse requirements.

Critical care nurse requirements: Education

To work as a critical care nurse, you need to develop advanced care skills and gain some practical experience working with patients. Additionally, you will need to get licensed as a registered nurse (RN). As such, it is necessary for you to first get a degree in nursing. This can be either an associate's degree, which typically takes two years, or a bachelor’s degree, which typically takes four. (A nursing diploma is also acceptable, though these programs are not as common as they once were.)

Critical care nurse requirements: Certification

Once you earn either your associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing, you will be qualified to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), a test that will ensure that you have honed the necessary skills. This exam may include questions to test your memory, knowledge of anatomy, and clinical thinking skills. Completing the exam entitles you to begin working as an RN.


From there, to become a critical care nurse, you will need to earn your critical care certification. The stipulations can vary by state, but may involve anywhere from one to five years of experience caring for critically ill patients. You can gain the experience you need in any kind of patient care that involves the acutely ill, whether that means working a shift in the ER or neonatal unit.


Note that a few different certifications are available for critical care nurses. Some examples are:


  • Acute/Critical Care Registered Nurse (Adult). Nurses with CCRN (Adult) certification deliver care for acutely or critically ill adults, such as in a cardiac care unit or the ICU.
  • Acute/Critical Care Registered Nurse (Pediatric). Nurses with CCRN (Pediatric) certification provide care for children who are acutely or chronically ill. They typically work in trauma units and ICUs.
  • Acute/Critical Care Registered Nurse (Neonatal). Nurses with CCRN (Neonatal) certification deliver care for newborn babies with critical health issues or babies born prematurely.

Continuing education and more

While working in critical care nursing, you may decide to pursue your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or even with a doctoral-level degree. These degrees are not required to practice critical care nursing, but can prepare you to assume nurse leadership positions, potentially earning more responsibility or even a higher critical care nurse salary.

What are the essential critical care nursing skills?

The point of fulfilling these educational requirements and sitting for certification exams is to ensure that you have the critical care nursing skills necessary to succeed in the field and furnish exemplary care for your patients. This raises the question: What are some of the important critical care nursing skills to develop?

Critical care nursing skills: An overview

Some examples include:


  • Technical skills. During your education and on-the-job training, you will develop the core competencies required to manage patient needs, including operating ventilators and other life support systems, administering medicine, inserting IVs, and monitoring patient vital signs.
  • Teamwork. While critical care nurses play an essential role in ensuring positive patient outcomes, they do not do it alone. Most critical care patients require monitoring around the clock and interventions from a team of nurses and doctors. Successful critical care nurses must be able to collaborate effectively.
  • Organizational skills. Critical care nurses need to be able to keep track of records and treatment plans for all of their patients and ensure that they are keeping each patient’s needs separate. This is essential for preventing medical errors, a leading cause of death in critical care settings.
  • Emotional steadiness. One of the biggest challenges of being a critical care nurse is that it involves working in tense, stressful situations, often delivering tough news to patients and family members, all the while dealing with matters of life and death. The best critical care nurses have deep emotional reserves and can remain calm, cool, and collected even during stressful moments.
  • Critical thinking and decision-making. The condition of a patient in critical care can change rapidly, requiring prompt intervention or changes to the treatment plan. Effective critical care nurses can adapt to changing conditions and take smart, decisive action. Critical thinking and decision-making skills are mandatory.
  • Communication. The best critical care nurses will also be able to convey diagnoses, treatment plans, and other important information to patients and family members in language free of confusing medical jargon. Additionally, critical care nurses need to know how to effectively communicate aftercare and recovery instructions to their patients and caregivers.
  • Self-care. Critical care nurses need to care for their patients, but they also need to know how to meet their own needs. Managing stress, burnout, and fatigue is essential for dealing with the rigors of the job.


As you consider a career path in critical care nursing, these are just a few of the essential skills you will wish to develop.

What is the critical care nurse salary and job outlook?

Prospective critical care nurses need to know what the job entails and what kind of education requirements they will face. Other professional considerations to think about include the expected salary range and job outlook.

Critical care nurse salary expectations

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not have separate wage data for critical care nurses, but it does have wage data for RNs as a whole. According to this data, the median annual salary for RNs was $75,330 as of May 2020. PayScale reports that the median annual salary for critical care nurses is about $70,600 as of July 2021.


Many factors can impact the critical care nurse salary, including the following:


  • Years of experience. Typically, critical care nurses who have more experience providing patient care will command a higher pay rate.
  • Education. Earning advanced degrees, such as a master’s degree or doctorate, can also lead to higher salaries.
  • Geographic location. The critical care nurse salary can vary depending on local demand.
  • Practice environment. Typically, nurses who work in hospital settings earn more than those in private practices.

Critical care nurse job outlook

According to the BLS, positions for RNs are expected to grow by 7% between 2019 and 2029. This represents a higher growth rate than the projected average for all professions, which is 4%.


A possible explanation for the strong critical care nurse outlook is the looming physician shortage. America’s population is aging, which means more people need help managing their chronic health conditions. Medical schools are unlikely to keep pace with the demand, which means advanced practice nurses may play an increasingly central role in patient care. This is just one of several factors that could explain why the job market for critical care nurses holds a lot of promise.

Is critical care nursing right for you?

As you consider different ways to make an impact in patients’ lives, critical care nursing may stand out as an appealing option. You should know that the job is emotionally and physically demanding and requires a high level of critical thinking ability. However, for a special caliber of nursing professionals, it can be a highly fulfilling career path. If you’re interested in exploring different nursing programs and career options, our recommendation engine can help.


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