An ICU nurse is a nurse who works in the intensive care unit. An intensive care unit is a department in a hospital where critically ill patients go. These patients might be coming out of surgery or rapidly deteriorating because of an illness. Their conditions are so fragile that they require round-the-clock supervision in case they need immediate care.
Critical care nurses have specialized skills and extensive knowledge of disease pathology to provide interventions and sustain life. They should not be confused with emergency room nurses, who treat urgent patients and respond to crisis.
While ICU nurses may work with different specialties, they have this in common: They’re specially trained to respond to critically ill patients. Additionally, the staff-to-patient ratio is very low in this setting so that nurses devote time to only one or two patients at a time, rarely more.
How to Become an ICU Nurse
Obtain a bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited university.
Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) and pursue licensure as registered nurse in your state.
Although certification isn’t necessary to be an ICU nurse, it can help you stay up to date on best practices and standards of care for acute and critical care patients. According to the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN), the accrediting agency for acute care certification, the critical care certification can help you get a job as an ICU nurse because it shows that you’re trained in the specialized area of critical care and committed to continuing education in the field.
Some nurse students pursue a master's degree in nursing to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). APRNs tend to have more autonomy and sometimes prescriptive authority than their licensed practical nurse (LPN) and RN peers because they’ve had more education and training. This can be especially valuable in an ICU setting, where nurses must swiftly respond to patient needs.
What Do ICU Nurses Do?
The main duties of an ICU nurse are to monitor and record their patients’ progress, as well as respond to immediate medical needs. According to O*Net - Report for Critical Care Nurses, other critical care nursing duties may include:
Checking patient vitals.
Performing or arranging for tests such as blood draws.
Recording patient health.
Coordinating care plans with other health care providers.
Educating and informing patients and their families.
Supervising LPNs and other nurses.
Being a critical care nurse requires a unique set of soft skills, beyond those necessary for all nurses, that includes performing under pressure. Critical care nurses need to be good communicators with their patients, patients’ families, and other health care professionals. Critical thinking and creative problem solving are two necessary leadership skills in this profession. Critical care nurses need to recognize problems, diagnose them and execute plans of action in a timely manner—there’s no time for self-doubt. The best nurses are confident and up to date on their fields of specialization.
Types of ICU Nurse
ICU nurses can be found in many departments of a hospital supporting patients of all ages and with varying degrees of emergency and threatening conditions.
Coronary: The coronary intensive care unit (CICU) specializes in patients who have had heart surgery and life-threatening heart conditions.
Neonatal: The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU, often pronounced “nick-you”) is where premature and newborn babies with life-threatening illnesses and conditions are cared for by specially trained nurses and doctors.
Pediatric: The pediatric intensive care unit (PICU, often pronounced “pick-you”) is where health care staff care for critically ill infants, children and teenagers.
Trauma: As the name implies, a trauma ICU is where patients who have been critically injured are cared for.
Surgery: Patients in a surgical intensive care unit (SICU) are cared for by specially trained ICU nurses who monitor vital signs and provide immediate care.
Where do ICU Nurses Work?
ICU nurses work wherever there are intensive care units—hospitals and health care centers. They work with other trained intensive care providers, such as doctors, radiologists, therapists and more.
Neonatal and pediatric ICU nurses may work in the NICU or PICU of children’s hospitals or in hospitals with special departments to care for newborns, infants and children.
Psychiatric ICU nurses work in regular hospitals with psychiatric departments or psychiatric hospitals that have special ICUs for patients who require round-the-clock monitoring.
Coronary ICU nurses work in hospitals as well, typically those that have specialized units for patients who have life-threatening heart defects or have had heart attacks. Sometimes the departments are called CICU or CVICU (cardiovascular intensive care unit).
Surgical ICU nurses work in departments of hospitals or surgical centers to care for post-op patients. These patients need constant observation as they come out of anesthesia. Some hospitals or surgery centers refer to these ICUs as post-anesthesia care units (PACU) or surgical intensive care units (SICU).
ICU nurses also work in hospitals’ general ICU units. This is where patients who have been seriously injured or are suffering from some other life-threatening illness or disease are treated and cared for.