Intensive Care Unit Nurse

ICUIntensive care unit nurse or critical care nurses are registered nurses who specialize in providing care in intensive care units of hospitals. Intensive care nurses are always in demand. As health care becomes more advanced, the percentage of critically ill patients requiring expert care continues to rise. There is a great need for qualified intensive care unit nurses.

Critical care nurses provide care in general ICU's as well as within specialized units. Intensive care nurses sometimes provide care to people of all ages , however most provide care to either adults or children.

In small hospitals a critical care nurse is likely to provide care across the age spectrum; whereas in large medical centers, intensive care units are likely to be separated into adult and pediatric units. In small hospitals, critical care nurses care for patients with medical and surgical crises.

Large medical center intensive care units are commonly divided into specialized units.  Examples of specialized intensive care units include:  cardiac, medical, surgical, burn, and neurological intensive care units.

Critical care nurses provide most of the direct care to patients in life threatening situations within intensive care units. Some critical care nurses specialize in providing care to newborns in neonatal intensive care units or to children in pediatric intensive care units.

Critical care nurses assess, plan, implement and evaluate health care services for patients suffering with a broad range of health conditions. Types of patients cared for depends upon the type of intensive care unit which nurses are employed in. All intensive care unit nurses care for extremely ill patients however.  

Nurses in general intensive care units commonly provide care to patients suffering from cardiac disease and brain injuries. Accident victims and patients recuperating from complex surgeries frequently need nursing care from critical care specialists as well. 

Intensive care unit nurses work closely with physicians and other members of the health care team. They need to be skilled in assessment of patients and capable of using high tech equipment. Critical care nurses must possess physical, mental, and emotional stamina to work with seriously ill patients and their loved ones.

Education Requirements

Critical care nurses are registered nurses who have specialized training which prepares them to provide care to patients with life threatening illnesses, injuries or complex medical issues. Intensive care unit nurses work in specialized units; however some use their expertise to provide educational services to patients rehabilitating from critical health problems. New graduate nurses are not usually hired directly into critical care units. Most employers require that nurses applying to work in critical care areas have a minimum of one to two years of general nursing experience prior to being considered for employment in intensive care.

Intensive care nurses are required to have certification in Advanced Cardiac Life Support. Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) training prepares nurses and other health care providers to provide emergency care to patients suffering from cardiac arrest, life threatening cardiac arrhythmias, and other medical emergencies.

Critical care nurses need to be proficient at performing and interpreting electrocardiograms (EKGs). They draw venous and arterial blood. Critical care nurses insert, maintain and use invasive devices. Specialized training courses must be taken to learn all of the above skills. Advanced physical assessment courses are needed as well.

Experienced critical care nurses are eligible to sit for the CCRN (Critical Care Registered Nurse) certification exam.

Opportunities exist in critical care areas for advanced practice nurses.

Licensed Practical Nurses are less commonly employed in intensive care units.

New graduate nurses are not usually employed by ICU managers.  Critical care unit mangers commonly require that applicants posses a minimum of one to two years of experience in a medical surgical setting prior to consideration for employment in an ICU.

New intensive care nurses receive prolonged orientation periods compared to nurses in other hospital areas

Job Description & Duties

The vast majority of critical care nurses work in intensive care units of hospitals.  Most critical care nurses work twelve hour shifts.

Critical care nurses have smaller patient care assignments than nurses in other settings due to the severity of illness and high number of tasks extremely ill patients need performed.

Intensive care nurses calculate medication doses and titrate potent medications. They insert and care for specialized venous and arterial infusions. ICU nurses must be adept at mathematics and the use ventilators and other high tech equipment.

Intensive care nurses provide care to a diverse patient population. They care for dying patients and provide education and support to family members faced with critical decisions such as discontinuing life support and deciding how to care  for people with brain injuries.

Intensive care nurses are members of emergency response teams in hospitals. They respond to medical emergencies in all areas of healthcare facilities. They often serve as resources to other nursing units.

Job Outlook and Salary

Critical care nurses make higher salaries than nurses in most other nursing departments. In addition to their base salary, critical care nurses commonly receive premium pay for the multiple certifications that they must possess.

 The job market for intensive care nurses is consistently excellent.  With increased complexity of medical technology and need for expertise required to help seriously ill patients survive, the outlook for continued growth in the field of intensive care nursing is excellent. Increasingly complex surgical interventions are frequently being performed .The need for expert nurses to care for patients postoperatively in intensive care units is great.

Critical care nurses initially earn over forty five thousand dollars annually. In large cities, a well credentialed experienced nurse may make over ninety thousand dollars per year.. The median salary for an intensive care unit nurse is over sixty one thousand dollars annually.


  • American Association of Critical Care Nurses (
  • American Nurses Credentialing Center (
Written by

Patricia Bratianu RN PhD RH-AHG

Patricia has been a Registered Nurse for almost forty years in a wide variety of settings. As a Registered Nurse, she realized that conventional healthcare was not meeting [...]