RN to BSN: What to know about a career as a critical care nurse

September 05, 2017 · 5 min read · By ASU Online

The field of nursing offers a number of crucial and rewarding career paths across the healthcare industry. Professionals can take part in serving patients through emergency care, administration and other specializations. This career profile series will explore some of the potential job opportunities available to those looking to help make an impact as a nursing professional.


Responsibilities of the critical care nurse

Patients in critical care conditions are unstable. They have low and erratic vitals and may even be unconscious. Ultimately these patients’ futures are uncertain and their conditions may result in death. Individuals who fall into this challenging category require specialized and attentive care. Outside of their physician and specialists, it is the critical care nurses who will help to ensure that their changing needs are met from moment to moment.

Nurses in the critical care field will care for patients of all ages - from young children to the elderly - who have experienced serious medical conditions. In additional to standard nursing fundamentals, critical care nurses are expected to be skilled in patient assessments and human physiology as well as the use of technology in administering care. Patients of critical nurses are frequently in tenuous health and require constant monitoring. Frequent recordings of vitals and blood oxygen levels are essential. In fact, depending on the patient's condition, these tasks may need to be performed several times an hour.

Critical care nurses work closely with physicians and specialists and are expected to communicate any change in a patient’s condition to them, enabling them to alter treatment in response to the patient’s worsening or improved condition. It is essential that as a care provider you are able to assess a patient’s condition quickly and accurately, especially if a patient exhibits signs indicating they are not responding favorably to treatment.

With such a vulnerable patient base, it is essential that critical care nurses receive the best possible education to prepare them for their role. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), “Education has a significant impact on the knowledge and competencies of the nurse clinician, as it does for all health care providers. Nurses with Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degrees are well-prepared to meet the demands placed on today's nurse.”

Regardless of which type of setting they choose to work in, nurses with a BSN degree are valued by employers due to their level of education and diverse skill set. What’s more, there is evidence to support that such an education can make a key difference in critical care. In fact, a 2007 study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found that, “BSN-prepared nurses have a positive impact on lowering mortality rates.” The study evaluated 46,993 patients who had all been admitted in serious condition including heart attack, stroke, pneumonia and blood poisoning. Their findings indicated that a 10 percent increase of BSN educated nurses resulted in 9 or fewer deaths out of every 1,000 patients that were discharged.

Team of doctors and nurses preparing for invasive surgery
Team of doctors and nurses preparing for invasive surgery.

Skills critical care nurses possess

So what is it about a BSN degree that may be contributing to such promising strides in hospital mortality rates? Among the key advantages of a bachelor of science in nursing program, like the one offered through Arizona State University Online, is the skill base it covers. Programs typically cover skills that can help a nursing professional set them self apart from those with an RN. Research indicates that students who received their RN went on to develop stronger skills at a professional level after completion of a BSN program. The areas they tend to excel in are communication, leadership, professional integration and research and evaluation.

The above points tend to correlate with the standards for practice of critical care nursing that are identified by the AACN, which include:

  • Assessment: Collecting data relevant to the patient’s condition.
  • Diagnosis: Analyzing collected data to determine diagnosis and treatment issues.
  • Outcomes Identification: Identifying outcomes for the patient based on their situation.
  • Planning: Determining an approach that outlines treatment to attain the desired outcome.
  • Implementation: Implementing the treatment plan, patient care, and determined strategies to promote a healthy and safe environment.
  • Evaluation: Evaluating the patient’s progress toward achieving the desired outcomes.

In addition to the above skills, excellent communication is an essential attribute for critical care nurses. Their roles task them with informing families and loved ones about a patient’s condition and discussing procedures, treatment and progress in a calm and relatable manner. Being able to convey information with compassion, welcome questions and offer advice are also essential for providing care in the modern medical landscape.

Career outlook and compensation

The responsibilities associated with critical care can make it a continually rewarding field to work in. It should be understood, however, that it may also be mentally and physically taxing for those unprepared for its demands as they relate to different types of employers. Critical care nurses can work in a variety of settings including intensive care units, cardiac and telemetry units, emergency rooms, medical evacuation and transportation services, outpatient clinics and nursing homes - all of which offer their own unique challenges and rewards.

Looking at potential job prospects for those looking to specialize in this field, critical care nurses can account for up to 37 percent of all nurses in a hospital3 and the critical care field is expected to grow by up to 26 percent by 2020. On average nurses working in critical care can expect to earn $66,000 yearly, however, this amount fluctuates based on education and region. Furthermore, nurses working in government and public or private hospitals often earn the most. 

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates demand is good for RNs, the organization also goes on to add that, “those with at least a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and related work experience are likely to find more job prospects.” Thinking about exploring your own future in critical care nursing? The RN to BSN program at Arizona State University is available 100% online and can help prepare you to focus on this vital career path.


Alumni pose with Arizona State University Mascot, Sparky the sun devil
Alumni pose with Arizona State University Mascot, Sparky the sun devil.


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