Medical staff in the intensive care unit (ICU) provide constant attention at a patient’s bedside – monitoring, assessing, and communicating to help the critically ill. Nurses play a key role in this setting and manage many different responsibilities.
According to the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN), this practice area treats “those patients who are at high risk for actual or potential life-threatening health problems.” The majority of ICU nurses work in hospitals and will care for patients in a diverse array of settings, from neonatal and pediatric ICUs, to the catheterization lab, telemetry units, and many more.
One major difference when working in an intensive care unit compared to other patient care areas is the patient load. While many nurses are used to caring for five, six, or even seven patients on a traditional med/surg floor, ICU nurses care for one or two patients. This smaller patient load allows for extreme focus and dedication to their needs.
How to Become an ICU Nurse
Nurses working in an ICU are usually registered nurses (RNs) with either an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in nursing. The demand for advanced practice nurses is also increasing. There are also a variety of certifications available for RNs who meet criteria for the exam. Certification exams are not required to practice, but tests like the AACN exams support the nurse’s expertise within the field and are encouraged by many healthcare employers. There are also certifications for neonatal, pediatric, and other specialties.
The Need for Nurses
While news of a nursing shortage is not new, ICU nurses are one area of highest demand. Salaries for ICU nurses vary depending on geographic location, years of experience, and credentials or certifications, but can fall between $57,000 and $78,000 per year or more.
Intensive care RNs must be quick thinkers and possess solid assessment and communication skills. Being able to communicate with concerned families and provide excellent patient care make this area extremely rewarding, though at times very stressful. Nurses who choose a career in intensive or critical care should expect unpredictable events but many rewarding moments as well.