What Do Intensive Care Nurses Do

Posted by Shanna Shafer on May 29, 2015 2:56:18 PM

What Do Intensive Care Nurses Do?



Time is of the essence when a patient is severely injured or gravely ill. In those moments, care providers that can respond quickly and make the right decisions are extremely important. Intensive care nurses respond to emergency situations, help stabilize patients, and work alongside a team of highly specialized providers to care for patients in times of medical crises.

If you're wondering what intensive care (ICU) nurses do and how much money they earn, go download a copy of our free Nurse Salary Guide!

Roles and Potential Roles

Typically, the main role played by an intensive care nurse is one of direct patient care in cases of severe illness. They may be the first person to interact with a patient, assess their condition, and communicate with other care providers about what is happening with multiple body systems.

Intensive care nurses may sometimes work in surgery if a patient's condition needs immediate surgical treatment, and typically provide post-operative recovery care themselves. Patient and family education are important roles for the ICU nurse, as this can be a time of confusion and worry for patients and families, and the role of the nurse is crucial to helping families get through this time.

Care coordination, effective communication, teamwork, attention to details and the ability to interact professionally with others are all a part of what an ICU nurse does daily.

Responsibilities and Demands of the Job

Intensive care nurses have many very important responsibilities. They often work long shifts, including weekends, nights, and holidays, to address the needs of their communities. They must also display quick thinking skills and the ability to work well under pressure, since moments matter when it comes to intensive care.

As an intensive care nurse, you may work with patients who are dying or who are extremely injured, and you must be able to keep a level head in any situation that you come across. Some of the patients you care for will require extreme lifesaving efforts, and you will become well versed in working with heart conditions, severe injuries, ventilated patients and those with very specific medical needs.


There are specialty options in intensive care nursing such as trauma, burns, neurological conditions, and cardiac care. In the ICU, it's important to be able to respond competently to any and all situations, regardless of the patient’s specific condition, so you may be trained in multiple specialties.

If you have prior training in a nursing specialty, you may be able to use that training in your intensive care nursing career. For instance, if you worked in a cardiologist office as an aide or nurse, you may be apply to apply that experience to working with cardiac patients in the ICU.


Intensive care nurses need extensive training to thrive in this setting. After completing an Associate's degree or Bachelor's degree in nursing, you may need to work in a general care setting to gain experience. You also need a registered nursing license that's valid in your state.


Intensive care nurses may earn an Associate's degree or Bachelor's degree in nursing. Your employer may require you to complete additional training specifically related to working in an intensive care setting, and there are continuing education requirements in each state.


You can contact your state's Board of Nursing for information on licensing standards in your state. At minimum, you need a degree from an approved nursing school and a passing grade on the NCLEX-RN.

Salary Range

The salary you earn as an intensive care nurse is dependent on how much experience you have, how much education you have, and where you work. To compare this specialty to other nursing fields and find out what intensive care nurses in your state make, get our free Nurse Salary Guide.

Get 200 Nursing Salaries Guide

Job Outlook for 2014 and Beyond

One of the benefits of working as a registered nurse is the excellent job outlook. Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job openings for RNs may jump by 19% between 2012 and 2022. This is very promising, particularly when compared to other career paths (BLS, 2012).

Career Path

It's likely that you'll need to work in a clinic or different hospital wing before working in intensive care, since you must prove your quick thinking skills. You may also shadow another intensive care nurse before working on your own.

Associations and Organizations


If you enjoy working in a fast-paced setting where your work truly makes a difference, intensive care nursing may just be the field for you. You can use our Nurse Salary Guide to learn more about what intensive care nurses earn, and then use our school listings to find nearby schools.

Topics: Career in Nursing