Critical Care Registered Nurse: Job Description, Duties & Requirements

Oct 20, 2021

Critical care registered nurses work in one of the most fast paced and high pressured departments at a hospital: the intensive care unit. These nurses must complete specialized training in order to learn how to function in such a high pressure environment.

Essential Information

Critical care registered nurses (RNs) specialize in caring for patients with life-threatening conditions, often in hospital intensive care units (ICUs). Many critical care nurses have completed training beyond what is needed for the the RN credential. Under the supervision of physicians, they closely monitor patients and administer medications and intensive therapies.

Required Education Associate's degree; bachelor's degree may be required by some employers
Additional Requirements State nursing license; American Association of Critical Care Nurses certification may be required by some employers
Projected Job Growth* (2019-2029) 7% for registered nurses
Median Salary* (2020) $75,330 annually for registered nurses

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Job Duties

Within hospitals, critical care nurses work in a variety of settings, including ICUs, emergency rooms and cardiac care units. They provide continuous, high-level care for critically ill patients and their families. Some, who have a sub-specialty in adult, pediatric or neonatal nursing, serve a specific population.

In general, critical care nurses work with fewer patients than those who work with less acutely ill patients; however, the needs of these patients are far greater and require constant monitoring and assessment. Critical care nurses are responsible for monitoring life support equipment, attending to wounds, responding to changing patient conditions and providing advanced life support. They document all these patient interactions to give the physician an accurate picture of the patient's status.


The first step to becoming a critical care nurse is to earn an RN credential. Some hospitals offer a diploma in nursing. Other routes to becoming an RN are getting an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) at a community college or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) at a 4-year institution. Candidates must also pass a national licensing exam to become an RN, the NCLEX-RN. Many nurse education programs offer courses in critical care that help prepare nurses for the specialty, but most training in the field is provided by hospitals after a nurse has been hired to work in critical care.

Many critical care nurses pursue certification in the specialty. Certification is not mandatory, but many employers prefer nurses who have this credential because it verifies they've met professional standards. Experience in critical care, passing a rigorous exam and continuing education are necessary to earn certification in critical care through the American Association of Critical Care Nurses. Certified critical care nurses often earn higher salaries than their counterparts who have not obtained certification.

Due to the complexity of patient care involved in critical care nursing, many RNs continue their education to become advanced practice nurses. It's not uncommon to find critical care nurses with master's and doctoral degrees in acute care settings. Typically, advance practice nurses in this specialty become clinical nurse specialists or acute-care nurse practitioners, positions which offer a higher degree of patient responsibility and independence.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for registered nurses should increase by 7% between 2019 and 2029. In 2020, the median annual salary for registered nurses was $75,330, per BLS.

Critical care nurses must be able to thrive under immense pressure, long hours, and a fast paced work environment. If this sounds like you, and you have an interest in working in the healthcare industry, then this might be the right career for you!

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