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How to Become a Critical Care Nursing Specialist

Critical care nursing involves working with patients who are facing serious health concerns. Critical care nurses look after the most vulnerable patients, usually in a hospital's intensive care unit.

A career as a critical care nurse will enable you to care for patients suffering from a wide range of severe health issues and conditions. If you want to learn how to become a critical care nurse, read on for all the information you need.

What Is a Critical Care Nursing Specialist?

A critical care nursing specialist is a registered nurse who works with patients with acute health conditions, many of whom are suffering from a life-threatening injury or illness. 

Critical care nurses have highly specialized skills and must monitor and assess patients while trying to find ways to restore their health. When necessary, they can also counsel patients on how to lead healthier lives. Critical care nurses usually tend to only one or two patients at a time, due to the severe nature of their condition.

What Does a Critical Care Nursing Specialist Do?

The primary job responsibility for a critical care nursing specialist is to work with and provide one-to-one care to patients. They provide bedside care to acutely ill patients or those suffering from serious injury. These nurses must make quick decisions, solve problems, and provide emotional support.

Knowledge and Skills

As an expert clinician, critical care nurses need to recognize the signs and symptoms of complications early on. This requires in-depth knowledge of human physiology and the changes patients will go through depending on which illness they have. 

These nurses also have the authority to intervene to prevent complications and keep a patient stabilized while adjusting medications, therapeutic devices, and fluids.

Coordinating Care and Facilitate Discussions

Typically, ICU patients have more than one doctor tending to their needs. The critical care nurse coordinates the care provided between all staff members. He or she can also intervene to make decisions or solve conflicts between patients and staff.

In some cases, when a patient is severely ill, nurses may facilitate discussions with family members to help decide the best care plan, as well as to provide support to the patient’s relatives.

If a patient’s health is declining and they have refused care, the discussion to remove life support is sometimes facilitated by ICU nurses. 

Technology and Equipment

Critical care nursing specialists work in an ICU unit packed with technology-heavy equipment. They need to have all the necessary knowledge to operate these machines while interacting with patients.

They use monitoring tools such as electrocardiographs to monitor heart rate, and oximeters to measure oxygen levels in the bloodstream. They are also well versed in using life support ventilators and intravenous devices. 

Essential Critical Care Nursing Skills

The three critical care nursing skills listed below are essential when working directly with patients in the ICU.


Critical care nurses must have the right education and training, but a passion for their job is equally as important. It is a challenging, emotionally demanding role with long hours.

Nurses who love their jobs can make a major difference in a patient’s recovery process. This is not a position that should be taken lightly or done purely for financial reasons. If you want to become a critical care nurse, you must be ready to deal with bureaucracy, irate patients and families, and exhausting work schedules.

Technical Critical Care Nursing Skills

Critical care nurses are often tasked with using a variety of machines to administer medication, insert central lines, and monitor a patient’s neurological status. 

Excellent Organizational Skills

If you struggle with multitasking, this may not be the job for you. Organizational skills are among the most important skills for any competent nurse, because of the complexity and significance of the role.

Staying organized in the ICU will be beneficial to your work performance and your patients’ livelihoods.

Critical Care Nursing Salaries and Job Outlook

Critical care nurses make an average of $76,084 per year, according to The overall income for this position falls between $68,549 and $82,677, depending on the state and facility, as well as the educational background and skills of the job applicant.

If you work as a nurse in a major metropolitan area like Los Angeles, you may be able to earn over $100,000 per annum. The more experienced you are, the better your salary will be, as nurses are often in short supply. 

As a critical care nurse, you will also receive job benefits such as vacation time, health insurance, health care, child care, tuition reimbursement, and paid overtime.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Critical Care Nurse?

A critical care nursing program can take two to five years to complete, depending on whether you are in an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s program. You will also need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam, and gain at least two years of work experience in clinical patient care.

How to Become a Critical Care Nursing Specialist: A Step-by-Step Guide

There are several paths you can take to get a critical care nursing qualification. We have outlined one of the most common paths below.

Step 1: Become a Registered Nurse

Joining a pre-nursing program or getting an associate degree in nursing are two of the best ways to get started. Most employers will require that you have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing or a master’s degree in nursing.

Next, you will need to pass the NCLEX-RN to become licensed by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN). The organization will provide you with all the reading material and clinical resources that you will need to pass the test.

Step 2: Gain Work Experience

You will need to gain two years of work experience after you receive your registered nurse qualification. You can work with a wide range of patients in whichever care setting you would like to fulfill this experience prerequisite.

This experience will help you build soft skills you will need to rely on in the future, such as problem-solving, communication, and critical thinking. 

Step 3: Get Certified

To become an ICU nurse, you will need to get another certification by demonstrating your abilities in several areas. The AACN offers a few different certified courses.

Requirements to Join a Critical Care Nursing Program

Below, we have compiled the education requirements you will need to become a critical care nurse.

  • Bachelor’s degree in nursing or a related field
  • Minimum of five years of experience working at an ICU
  • Understanding of health information structures and technology
  • Exceptional communication skills and empathy
  • Ability to work in stressful environments

As you learn, you should be focused on expanding your procedural repertoire. This is the best way to improve your ICU nursing skills and grab the attention of recruiters.

Best Programs and Critical Care Nursing Courses 

Some of the best programs are offered by institutions like the AACN. Below are two other accredited institutions, followed by the online courses they offer to help you become a critical care nurse.

Bachelor's for Non-Nurses With a BA Degree

  • Provider: Nursing CAS
  • Time: From 6 months - 1 year
  • Cost: From $55.00
  • Prerequisites: N/A
  • 2021 Enrollment Dates: 31st Jan

There are a few different paths to becoming a nurse and NURSING CAS has you covered. It offers bachelor’s degrees to non-nurses, master’s, doctoral, certificates, and associate degrees to anyone who wants to take it as a main career or a second one.

The accelerated program above admits students with baccalaureate degrees in other disciplines and no previous nursing education is required to attain a nursing degree.

 Critical Care and Leadership (Online) - MSc, PgDip, PgCert

  • Provider: University of Glasgow
  • Time: Between 12- 36 months depending on course
  • Cost: Varies - $ 17,750.39 (MSc) 
  • Prerequisites: Relevant education qualification at Bachelor’s level 2, in Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacology, Physiotherapy. 
  • 2021 Enrollment Dates: 11th Jan, 19th April, 20th Sept

The highly specialized career path of critical care nursing should be taken at a world-renowned institution such as this. It is the world’s best program for any critical care professional who wants to learn how to become an excellent leader, as well as enhance their management and guidance skills. 

Specialty of Nurse in Intensive Care

  • Provider: Keystone Healthcare
  • Time: 3 Semesters - Full-Time
  • Cost: $1,168.98
  • Prerequisites: N/A
  • 2021 Enrollment Dates: Upon request from website

This course will help you become a nursing specialist in critical care through providing specialized knowledge, clinical information, and skills as well as aptitude competencies to allow you to reach maximum know-how of providing the best critical care to patients in critical conditions. The curriculum is split into three semesters with 16 different relevant subjects covered.

Executive Diploma in Nursing & Patient Care Assisting

  • Provider: Keystone Healthcare
  • Time: Self-paced (full-time and part-time)
  • Cost: $35.54
  • Prerequisites: N/A
  • 2021 Enrollment Dates: Open-Enrollment 

This course covers eight different units, in a concise and informative manner. Everything from health and wellness, to medical terminology and patient recordkeeping is covered. It will help you land the perfect job in no time and help those in need.

Critical Care Nursing Specialist Certificates

Below are some of the many top certificates you should consider attaining to advance your knowledge and skills further in becoming an expert critical care nurse. The AACN (American Association of Critical-Care Nurses)  is a good place to start.

CCRN (Adult)

A specialty critical care nursing certificate for nurses who provide direct care to critically ill adult patients. This certificate allows you to work in areas such as cardiac care units, ICU (intensive care units), medical/surgical ICUs, and trauma units.  

CCRN (Pediatric)

This critical care nursing certification allows you to work in both adult and pediatric wards, providing direct care to children and pediatric patients. You have a choice of a two-year program and a five-year option.

CCRN (Neonatal)

Regardless of the patient’s physical location, this critical care nursing certificate allows you to work with those in neonatal wards who are critically ill. This includes direct supervision, administering drugs, and more.

Should You Become a Critical Care Nurse?

As the healthcare industry grows, so has the demand for health care professionals such as nurses and doctors. A main concern in the industry is the shortage of nurses due to high-demand, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak.

It is expected that employment opportunities for registered nurses are expected to grow more than 12 percent by 2028. There is no better time than now to join the ranks of those helping save lives during the current pandemic. If you are passionate about helping others, it’s the right time to become a critical care nurse. 


What is a critical care nurse?
A critical care nurse provides care for patients who are recovering from a serious medical procedure or who are in critical condition.
What does a critical care nurse do?
A critical care nurse will monitor, assess, and provide care for patients in extremely vulnerable conditions. They also make important decisions, operate life-support systems, and administer medication. It is also their duty to explain medical procedures and treatment options to patients and their loved ones.
How much money does a critical care nurse make?
The national average salary for a critical care nurse is $75,119.
What units are considered critical care?
Critical care nurses may work in ICUs, pediatric care, cardiac care, step-down units after surgery, neonatal ICUs, trauma and burn units, and emergency rooms.
How do I become a critical care nurse?
You should begin by becoming a registered nurse, which you can do by earning an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree in nursing. Once you have your degree, you must take and pass the NCLEX-RN exam to get your license. Then, you must gain at least two years of work experience. You can also continue your education through online programs and specialist certification courses during this time.
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