Three attributes of the modern critical care nurse
HealthMay 20, 2014

Three attributes of the modern critical care nurse

Half a million nurses care for critically ill patients. This post explains who critical care nurses are and why their work is so important.

Critical care nurses care for the sickest patients, most with life-threatening conditions.  Traditionally, you find critical care nurses working in ICUs.

But since the specialty’s advent in the 1950s, critical care nurses have become, well, critical in other settings, too:

  • cardiac care units and cath labs
  • telemetry units
  • progressive care units
  • emergency departments
  • recovery rooms
  • outpatient surgery centers
  • home health

More than 500,000 nurses in the United States currently care for patients who are acutely and critically ill, according to the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN). Critical care nurses make up more than a third of all RNs who work in hospitals.

Due to the vulnerability of the patient population, critical care settings can be busy and stressful places. Consequently, you’ll often find that nurses who gravitate there tend to be cool under pressure and geared to the challenge of complex care. Their feathers don’t ruffle easily, and many thrive under the pressure of meeting the multiple, complex and sometimes constant needs of their patients.

Beyond Type A attributes, today’s critical care nurses tend to share three additional qualities.

They’re learners.

Most RNs are exposed to critical care in nursing school, but the real meat-and-potatoes training of intensive care occurs after RN licensure and on the job. To master the care delivery and technology skills essential for higher acuity care, nurses take part in critical care orientations, internship programs, on-the-job training, and CE opportunities available electronically, in print and in-person.

Specialty certification isn’t required of critical care nurses, but many opt to earn one of the specialty critical care certifications anyway. They consider specialty certification a badge of honor and are proud to distinguish themselves to employers, colleagues and patients through such an accomplishment (which few would argue against, considering applicants must log a minimum of 2 years’ critical care experience just to sit for the CCRN exam).

Given the high-stakes nature of their work, even experienced critical care nurses place a priority on staying current on the latest evidence-based research, technology and best practices that affect how they perform their jobs. Specialty journals such as Critical Care Nursing Quarterly and conferences such as the National Teaching Institute & Critical Care Exposition help them, providing valuable instruction and education on a truly dynamic nursing specialty.

They’re earners.

“The opportunities to work in acute and critical care have never been better,” according to the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. Once located primarily in the ICU, critical care nurses have followed their patients with critical needs into numerous other hospital units as well as beyond hospital walls—into ambulatory surgery centers and even homes. With the increase in practice settings has come an increase in demand for critical care nurses.

The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses reports a growing number of recruitment ads for critical care nurses, with hospitals offering extra incentives such as sign-on bonuses and CE reimbursement to attract potential candidates. Travel nurses who specialize in critical care are sought after too, as hospitals struggle to fill critical care staffing gaps across the United States.

It’s no surprise, then, that salaries are on the healthier side. A 2013 salary survey conducted by ADVANCE for Nurses found annual salaries for critical care nurses averaging the low $70s. lists the median salary for a critical care nurse at $67,957. For an ICU nurse, $68,609.

They’re advocates.

With patients physically at their worst and families distracted by concern and worry, critical care nurses are patient advocates “first and foremost,” according to their professional association. As such, among a host of other duties, they:

  • Respect and support autonomous, informed decision-making by the patient or a designated surrogate.
  • Represent the patient in accordance with his or her choices and intercede when patients cannot speak for themselves.
  • Act as a liaison among the patient, the patient’s family and other healthcare professionals.
  • Help the patient obtain necessary care.

In other words, critical care nurses have got the patient’s back. That, when it comes down to it, is the essence of their mission. When a patient is critically ill, critical care nurses are close by—which is just where their patients want them.

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