As you look into nursing specialties, you may be interested in learning more about the role of a critical care nurse. Critical care nursing could be an important emphasis to explore, particularly if you think you want to nurse in a hospital setting. According to the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, about 37 percent of all nurses who work in hospitals are considered critical care nurses. That means they work with patients who are deemed critically or acutely ill.

The Role of a CCN

While quality nursing care is important for all patients, it is especially important for patients who are facing life-threatening or potentially life-threatening issues. Nurses who work with acutely ill patients are considered important patient advocates at a time when a patient is very vulnerable. They must be able to help assess complex health issues and assist the patient in getting needed treatment. Sometimes critical care nursing involves educating patients or those who represent critically ill patients about their different healthcare options in difficult situations. Nurses of acutely ill patients need to draw on important skills to monitor and help patients and to comfort and care for families during a stressful time.

A critical care nurse can put their skills to use in a wide variety of settings. Within a hospital, such a nurse may work in intensive care units, step-down units (typically a transitional unit between ICU and regular care), and in emergency or recovery rooms. Nurses who work in an ICU may work in a unit where specific types of patients are cared for such as pediatric or neonatal ICUs. Although many CCNs work in hospitals, nurses may also care for critically ill patients in other environments, including homes, clinics and outpatient surgeries or managed care facilities.

Becoming a CCN

The path to becoming a nurse specializing in critical care begins by becoming a registered nurse (RN). You become an RN by gaining a diploma, an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree in nursing, and then taking and passing the national licensure exam called the NCLEX-RN. If you are interested in critical care nursing, you can probably take some coursework related to it during your nursing training, though your best preparation will likely come through your actual nursing experience. Although you are not required to become certified, many nurses who decide to work in this area of specialization do pursue certification, which requires a minimum of two years' experience in working with critically ill patients in order to qualify you for the certification exam. You can learn more about the certification exam at the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses website, which also has a number of other important resources for nurses already at work in this area as well as those interested in pursuing it. If you end up staying in the field of critical care, you also might end up becoming an advanced practice nurse, which would require a graduate level degree.

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The general nursing shortage is even more pronounced in critical care, with many hospitals looking for temporary staffing help for critical care units. Though it's demanding work, it's also important work you can feel satisfied in doing well. Job opportunities for a well-trained critical care nurse should be in good supply.