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What is an Acute Care Nurse

Acute care nurses are highly skilled Registered Nurses (RNs) who care for people with life-threatening conditions. They often work in fast-paced, challenging environments with very ill patients. Acute care RNs deal with life and death on a daily basis. They are part of close-knit team of physicians, respiratory therapists, nurses and nurses' aides. They must have exceptional assessment and communication skills. They must be able to recognize when a patient is declining, since the patients are often unable to speak for themselves. Acute care nurses are also referred to as intensive care or critical care nurses.

Acute Care Nurse Job Description

Acute care RNs provide care to people who are suffering from life threatening injuries or diseases. Some examples of injuries or diseases an acute care RN might encounter include penetrating trauma, respiratory failure or stroke. They often care for patients who have cardiac or respiratory injuries that require the use of specialized equipment to maintain life. These RNs are skilled at working with patients on ventilators, with patients who have multiple medications being administered through an intravenous line and with patients who require intense, one-on-monitoring. Often acute care RNs can be found in intensive care units, emergency departments, and post-anesthesia units. Some may choose to be flight nurses, helping to transport critical patients in small airplanes or helicopters. Acute care nurses commonly work twelve hour shifts and are often required to work nights, weekends and holidays.

Acute Care Nurse Training

To start a career as an RN, students need to earn either an associate's degree or a bachelors degree in nursing. Nursing degree programs can be found in every state as well as around the world. Associate degree programs can be found at the community college level and require two years of study. Bachelor degree programs are found at the university level and require four years of study. Prior to admission to either degree program, students must have a high school degree, have completed prerequisite classes including basic math, biology, psychology and human anatomy. Traditional nursing programs are classroom based, but more programs are being offered online. No nursing program is exclusively online, however, due to the hands-on clinical rotations that are required. The number of clinical hours required may vary by program, but is generally eight to sixteen hours per week. Graduates must pass the national nursing examination, the NCLEX-RN, prior to being licensed in their particular state.

There is no specific training program to become an acute care RN, but while in school, nurses often have a rotation in the intensive care unit or other critical care units which can give valuable insight into acute care nurse duties. Due to the acuity of critical care patients, new graduates often do not start their careers in a critical care unit. Many hospitals require that acute care RNs have at one year of experience prior to working in a critical care unit. Experienced nurses who want to specialize as an acute care RN are often given on the job training by the hospital they choose to work for. Training periods vary by facility, but often include a preceptor program with some classroom instruction. Acute care RNs are certified in Advanced Cardiac Life Support, which is in addition to the Basic Life Support certification required of all RNs. Acute care RNs can choose to become certified in critical care nursing through the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN). To be eligible for certification, nurses must have an unencumbered nursing license, 1,750 hours of bedside nursing care with critically ill patients within the two previous years and a professional associate willing to verify eligibility. RNs who pass the exam are given the CCRN designation, standing for Critical Care Registered Nurse.

Acute Care Nurse Salary

Acute care nurse pay is slightly higher compared to the pay of other RNs. Payscale.com reports in 2012, a nurse working in the intensive care unit was paid a salary ranging from $44,798 to $88,450. Pay varies according to years of experience, location of employment and region of employment. Acute care RNs with a CCRN designation may be paid more than a nurse without a certification.

Opportunities For Nursing Career Advancement

Acute care RNs can choose become an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (ACNP). There are close to 100 ACNP programs across the country. Programs have been classroom based in the past, but more programs are offering an online option for some or all of the required classes. There are, however, clinical rotations for which students must be physically present. Graduates of an ACNP program can apply for certification via the American Nurses Credentialing Center or through the AACN.

Acute care nursing can be an excellent career choice for nurses who enjoy a fast-paced and exciting work environment. New graduates interested in this field need a solid foundation in nursing which can be attained with several years of post-graduate work experience. Experienced acute care nurses can gain recognition and possibly higher pay by becoming certified. An acute care RN can expand his or her horizons and become an ACNP. Whatever level a nurse chooses to practice at, working with critically ill patients can provide for a challenging and rewarding career path.

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