JAANUU » What’s an ICU Nurse? Everything You Need to Know

What’s an ICU Nurse? Everything You Need to Know

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The Intensive Care Unit (ICU) is a challenging clinical setting, and the hardworking healthcare professionals who work in this environment are real-life superhumans. They come across complex, life-threatening cases and critically ill patients. They’re literally lifesavers! 

But working in the ICU isn’t just about making quick, accurate decisions that improve a patient’s state. Sometimes, the healthcare professionals in this unit must make the difficult call of de-escalation. 

Because of the nature of their work, ICU nurses are expected to possess the fortitude to handle difficult situations and the empathy to make patients feel comfortable in critical moments. They must also know how to provide specialized care, like intubating patients or putting them on ventilators. They do all this without much downtime. A patient’s state can change quickly in the ICU, so nurses must always be attentive and ready to react.  

If you think you have what it takes to be an ICU nurse, we’re already proud of you! You’re about to embark on a noble career. This role not only means doing right by your patients but also by yourself. Read on to know what you’ll need to study to become an ICU nurse, what you’ll do on a daily basis and what key traits you’ll need to work efficiently. 

How to become an ICU nurse

ICU nurses learn about their profession through college-level classes, hands-on experience and advanced certification coursework. The following are the educational ICU nurse requirements:

Get your nursing degree

No matter what specialization you pursue or how far you take your career, all registered nurses must earn a college-level degree. Two common nursing programs are the Associate’s Degree of Nursing (ADN) and the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). We recommend getting the latter if you plan to advance your career down the road. A bachelor’s degree is one of the requirements for taking a postgraduate program like a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or doctorate. 

Pass the NCLEX-RN 

All nurses need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination-Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to practice. After you ace the exam, you can apply for licensure from your state. 

Get clinical experience 

The next step is to gain experience in the field by working in a nursing role that specializes in intensive care for at least two years. Many certifications will ask for this experience as a prerequisite. 

Earn an ICU nurse certification 

Make yourself a more attractive job candidate and boost your salary potential by continuing education and earning one of the following critical care certifications from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN).

  • CCRN (Adult): This certification is for nurses who provide direct care to critically ill adults. 
  • CCRN (Pediatric): This certification is for nurses caring for children in critical care settings. 
  • CCRN (Neonatal): This certification is for nurses that provide critical care to newborns in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). 

Where do ICU nurses work?

ICU nurses generally work in different ICU settings, like general ICUs, surgical ICUs, NICUs and PICUs (pediatric intensive care units). But they may also work in healthcare facilities like:

  • Trauma units 
  • Transports 
  • Cardiac care units 
  • Electrophysiology units
  • Heart failure clinics
  • Patients’ homes
  • Cardiac catheter labs
  • Post-operative care units

Types of ICU nurse

Just like ICU nurses work in various clinical settings, they also hold specialized roles. Here’s a list of types of ICU care these nurses provide:

  • Coronary: In this specialization, nurses work with patients who’ve had heart surgery or are living with life-threatening cardiac conditions. 
  • Neonatal: Neonatal ICU nurses care for babies with life-threatening illnesses. 
  • Pediatric: Pediatric ICU nurses provide care to critically ill children and adolescents. 
  • Trauma: Trauma nurses provide direct patient care to those who’ve suffered life-threatening injuries.
  • Surgery: Surgery ICU nurses provide specialized care to pre- and post-op patients.

What do ICU nurses do daily?

The daily tasks of ICU nurses depend on the specialization and area of the hospital in which they work, but here are a few tasks these nurse practitioners perform: 

  • Monitoring vital signs and patient progress
  • Administering medication (oral, intravenous)
  • Intubating patients 
  • Addressing emergencies and sudden changes in patients’ condition
  • Providing empathetic support 
  • Communicating with doctors about patients’ conditions
  • Performing therapeutic procedures
  • Assessing lab results 
  • Using medical equipment like ventilators 
  • Assisting patients with pain management 
  • Charting (maintaining patients’ medical records and histories)

How to be a good ICU nurse

Now that you know how you’ll become an ICU nurse. But just earning your degree, specializing in critical care and getting hands-on experience won’t suffice. What you’ll also need to become an even better version are the “soft skills”—interpersonal and administrative abilities that improve patient care. Here are some of the key ICU nurse personality traits: 

  • Passion: ICU nursing is a calling. It’s trying work that’s not for everyone. Successful ICU nurses are passionate about the job, and this helps them keep up with its physical and emotional demands.
  • Teamwork: ICU nurses must communicate well with physicians, other nurses, specialists and aides on their team to make sure that everyone is clear on patient needs and care plans. 
  • Critical thinking: Patients’ conditions can change quickly in the ICU, and nurses must respond promptly and confidently. Timely intervention can save a life! 
  • Emotional strength: ICU patients and their family members are often experiencing a difficult time, which is why ICU nurses need to meet this challenge with surety and strength. Remember that emotional strength doesn’t have to come on its own. If a nurse is burnt out, they may experience compassion fatigue. Nurses can stay emotionally healthy by taking breaks, self-care and seeking professional therapy.  

What’s an ICU nurse’s salary?

You’re probably wondering if all this tough work pays off with a solid salary. Well, it does. ICU nurses earn an average salary of $118,000 annually. And, as is true with most medical careers, ICU nursing roles are on the rise. 

For all those in a nursing career in the ICU, we see you. (And we hope you caught the rhyme there!). We’re supporting you as you take on this challenging role, and you can count on us for the right workwear that’ll keep you comfortable even on your toughest shift. 

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