If you have ever been critically ill or visited someone in the hospital who was, you have likely encountered an ICU nurse. ICU (Intensive Care Unit) nurses, also known as Critical Care nurses, are highly specialized nurses who treat and care for all types of patients with life-threatening conditions. Because of their advanced care abilities and the fact that they only treat one or two patients during a shift, ICU nurses are a specialty position that will continue to be in high demand.
If you are thinking about becoming an ICU nurse, this resource will explain what an ICU nurse is, the responsibilities of an ICU nurse, the skills you would need to have, and the steps for becoming an ICU nurse.
What is an ICU nurse?
On traditional hospital floors, nurses provide care for numerous patients during a shift that are stable and requiring only basic care. Typical responsibilities include regular checks, medication delivery, and assistance with medical procedures when needed.
However, in an intensive care unit, patients require regular monitoring of vitals (every 15 minutes to every hour), the use of life-supporting systems such as ventilators or heart monitoring, and precisely delivered medications. For this reason, ICU nurses require more extensive knowledge of equipment and charting than other registered nurses.
Types of intensive care units
ICU nurses work in an intensive care unit of the hospital. While many hospitals have one or two different ICUs, there are a variety of specialty units where ICU nurses can work. These can include:
- Medical Intensive Care (MICU) – This is a general ICU that often sees cases of respiratory distress, overdoses, or sepsis.
- Pediatric Intensive Care (PICU) – This is an intensive care unit specializing in the treatment of children.
- Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU) – The NICU treats premature newborns, newborns with medical conditions, and those children under 28 days of age.
- Cardiac Care Units (CICU, CVICU, or CCU) – These units take care of patients with heart conditions, including heart attacks.
- Surgical Intensive Care (SICU) – Surgical ICUs may see post-surgical cases that require increased monitoring, such as transplants and severe trauma.
- Neuro ICU – These units specialize in neurological conditions, such as strokes and brain bleeds.
- Trauma Intensive Care (TICU) – These units specialize in trauma patients, such as gunshots or other serious and life-threatening traumas.
- Burn Intensive Care (BICU) – This unit specializes in treating patients with severe and life-threatening burns.
What are the differences between ER and ICU nurses?
Of the different types of nursing jobs, ER and ICU nurses are two of the most familiar. Nurses working in the Emergency Room, or ER, see it all. Every day is different. Patients can come in with everything from flu symptoms to severe trauma, gunshots, or heart attacks. ER nurses must be able to quickly recognize acute problems and work with the physicians to stabilize the patient. They must be able to quickly triage patients and then treat patients in order of priority. ER nurses thrive in a chaotic environment and step up to meet the challenge.
In contrast, ICU nurses treat patients that require the highest level of care and work in a more structured setting. ICU nurses use specialized skills and training to closely monitor and assess fragile and critical patients, many of whom are in severe condition. Patients are often ventilated, intubated, and hooked up to a variety of medication drips. ICU nurses need to be able to act quickly should a patient take a turn. In addition, ICU nurses become advocates for their patients and their families. ICU nurses are typically structured and organized.
What are the duties and responsibilities of an ICU nurse?
Being an ICU nurse is a very demanding position, as you are constantly monitoring highly unstable and critical patients. A typical shift as an ICU nurse can include the following tasks and responsibilities:
- Monitoring and assessing patients at least every hour
- Lab draws
- Patient repositioning and skin integrity checks
- Wound care
- Ventilatory management
- Medication administration
- Tracheostomy and ventilator care
- Intravenous insertion and infusion
- Central line care
- Swan-Ganz catheters
- Advanced cardiac life support
- Providing emotional support to patients and family members
- Constant critical thinking and preparation for every possible care scenario
What is the nurse-to-patient ratio in the ICU?
The nurse-to-patient ratio is the number of patients that a nurse can be responsible for during a shift to provide the best patient outcome. How many patients an ICU nurse has will vary by state and the type of healthcare facility the nurse is working in. However, the ideal nurse-to-patient ratio in an ICU is around 1:1 or 1:2.
What skills do ICU nurses need?
There are many skills an ICU nurse needs to be able to provide the best patient care including focus, compassion, stamina, and a solid foundation in nursing. Some of the core competency skills necessary for ICU nurses include:
- An understanding of medical technology and equipment
- Strong assessment skills, giving you the ability to detect subtle changes in your patients’ conditions
- Strong knowledge of anatomy and physiology
- In-depth knowledge of medications and their actions, including interactions, side effects, and dosage calculations
- Strong organizational skills and the ability to prioritize
- Strong communication skills
- The ability to handle end-of-life issues
- Ability to work well in a team environment as you will be a part of a complete care team including physicians, specialists, aides, and other medical professionals
- The ability to rapidly make a decision
What is the average salary of an ICU nurse?
ICU nurse salaries vary depending on several factors, including experience level and geographical location. The average yearly salary for ICU nurses according to ZipRecruiter as of 2023 ranges from $75,500 to $145,500 with the average being $119,012. However, larger hospitals in heavily populated cities, such as New York or Los Angeles, often pay more. Additionally, if you were to choose a specialty ICU, such as NICU, the average salary generally increases.
How do you become an ICU nurse?
To become an ICU nurse, first you need to obtain a bachelor’s or associate degree in nursing to give you the foundation of nursing and medical terminology. Next, you would need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), which gives you the proper license to practice as a registered nurse. After obtaining your license, your state may also require a state license which you obtain by applying to your state board.
Once you receive all the basic licensing, you then need to gain nursing experience. If you are trying to become an ICU nurse, it is best to find an RN role where you can help in the ICU for around two to five years. After you gain the experience needed, you must become certified as an ICU nurse. One option for certification is the Certification for Critical-Care Nurses (CCRN) which entails an exam by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN). Once obtained, you can officially become an ICU nurse.
Can ICU nurses be travel nurses?
The demand for ICU nurses is high across the country, which opens many opportunities for ICU nurses to travel. Becoming an ICU travel nurse allows you to visit new places and experience different hospitals across the country, all while doing the job you love.
Travel nurse assignments typically last 13 weeks and include housing and travel costs. In addition, travel ICU nurses are often paid higher wages as they are often in greater demand. To learn more about becoming an ICU travel nurse and the opportunities available to you, contact our team today or start searching for open positions using the link below.