Critical Care: In-Demand Specialty for Travel Nursing Jobs

July 13, 2021

Critical care nurses provide care to patients who are unstable and at serious risk. Some are chronically ill while some are suffering from acute diseases or injuries. Some are post-surgical patients who require diligent monitoring and frequent reassessment.

Patients receiving critical care represent the full range of ages and conditions, starting with neonatal and pediatric and spanning adult and geriatric populations. They can be suffering from neurological or cardiac emergencies and can be transplant recipients, burn victims, or could suffer from any number of illnesses. Because patients can have such diverse care needs, critical care nurses require elevated critical thinking skills combined with a deep knowledge of anatomy, physiology, diseases and conditions. They also require the ability to provide cardiopulmonary resuscitation and to use life-saving equipment at a moment’s notice.

Critical care nursing is one of the most in-demand nursing specialties. Intensive care services in the United States continues to expand. Between 2002 and 2009, critical care unit admissions rose three times faster than other types of hospital stays. Additionally, critical care nurses are vulnerable to burnout, and this presents a particular challenge in the face of the national shortage of registered nurses. Hospitals are increasingly turning to travel critical care nurses to help ease the workload and stress for their full-time staff.

RNs can earn up to $2,300 a week as a travel nurse. Speak to a recruiter today!

What is a Critical Care Nurse?

Critical care nurses are the backbone of care units, treating patients with acute injuries and life-threatening conditions. These patients are generally receiving care in the adult, neonatal or pediatric Intensive Care Unit (ICU), the Cardiac Care unit or the Emergency Department. They are often unstable, desperately ill and medically fragile.

These patients require varying types of critical care. In addition to providing highly specific treatment for surgical, pulmonary, psychiatric or trauma-related conditions, critical care nurses also provide comprehensive holistic special care units for the chronically critically ill patients. Critical care nurses must have meticulous patient assessment skills, the ability to respond quickly to an unstable patient’s ever-changing needs, and the compassion to respond to the emotional needs of patients and their family members.

Because their patients are in need of close attention, critical care nurses work with a low nurse-to-patient ratio. They are generally assigned no more than two or three patients at a time. The acute nature of their patients’ needs lends itself to 12-hour shifts, thus minimizing the need for frequent changes in the personnel providing care. These longer shifts provide the nurses the opportunity to get a better understanding of their patients’ conditions, and therefore to spot any sudden changes. Critical care nurses work as part of a team of healthcare professionals who must communicate and respond to both subtle shifts and emergent situations, while still performing basic nursing duties such as monitoring vital signs and administering medication.

Though every hospital has its own criteria for critical care admissions, in most cases the patients that critical care nurses treat are either suffering from or vulnerable to organ failure — often a lung. This means, critical care nurses will usually need experience supporting and monitoring advanced and invasive respiratory interventions.

Critical care nurses will often be caring for patients who have recently been extubated after prolonged intubation, need acute renal replacement therapy, require neurological support, have recently had complex spinal surgery or are suffering burns or major trauma. Critical care nurses need the technical skills necessary to treat these patients, as well as keen observation skills and robust critical thinking abilities. They not only need to communicate with the rest of the care team, but must have the ability to work with patients and their family members to relay information and expectations about their condition.

Critical care nurses are the frontline of care, assessment and evaluations in Intensive Care Units, and their expertise and composure is highly prized by every team with which they work. As a result experienced and knowledgeable critical care travel nurses are in high demand, and welcomed by the facilities to which they are assigned.

Critical Care Nurse Salary and Job Growth Potential

Critical care nursing ranks among the highest paid nursing specialties. According to, the salary for a critical care nurse in the United States averages $72,541, and recruitment efforts for the position are highly competitive.

According to, the salary for a critical care nurse in the United States averages $72,541, and recruitment efforts for the position are highly competitive.

Hospitals feeling the pressures of the national nursing shortage combined with the growing need for intensive care professionals offer a wide range of perks and special benefits for qualified and experienced critical care nurses, including onsite childcare, home maid service, and laundry service in addition to the more typical offerings of healthcare and vacation time. Critical care nurses are also able to increase their compensation by volunteering to work overtime and on-call hours.

Top Paying Cities for Critical Care Nurses in 2021

According to, here are the best paying cities for critical care nurses in 2021:

  1. Los Angeles, CA: $108,811 per year
  2. Houston, TX: $81,971 per year
  3. Atlanta, GA: $77,618 per year
  4. Dallas, TX: $76,168 per year
  5. Phoenix, AZ: $76,168 per year

Click here to talk to a recruiter about available critical care travel nursing assignments.

Critical Care Nurse Education Requirements, Certifications and Professional Groups

If your goal is to become a critical care nurse, you need to start with the path that leads to becoming a Registered Nurse. That can mean earning your Associate’s Degree in Nursing or your Bachelor of Science in Nursing and then passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

Once you’re licensed the road to working in critical care involves working to get the experience and hands-on training needed to work in his highly specialized area. This usually involves an ICU externship during school or an internship program as a new graduate. If you don’t wish to sign up for a formal program, the best way to get introduced into critical care is through a training program offered by your hospital.

For additional support in pursuing your critical care goals, the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN) offers access to related certifications and educational modules. These are available in both pediatrics and neonatology as well as in adult acute and critical care. The group can also help with networking and professional development opportunities, including mentors and news.

The Pros and Cons of Being a Critical Care Nurse

Pros of Critical Care Nursing

  • Ability to provide focused care to just one or two patients at a time.
  • Being able to see patients go from unstable to stable conditions.
  • Working within part of a highly collaborative healthcare team.
  • Critical care nurses are highly respected for their high-level observational skills and ability to remain calm and work well under pressure.

Cons of Critical Care Nursing

  • Communications with patient families can be emotional and challenging.
  • High risk of negative or cynical attitudes towards patients.
  • Shifts are commonly 12 hours or longer.
  • Intense, high-pressure environment with high patient morbidity.

Nursing as a Critical Care Travel Nurse

The role that critical care nurses play for patients facing life-threatening health conditions cannot be understated. Critical care nurses must be able to think clearly, remain calm and work cohesively with a healthcare team dedicated to stabilizing patients who are medically fragile. These highly-trained professionals will need a strong foundation in anatomy and physiology, excellent assessment abilities and strong communication skills. This skillset, once acquired, is highly portable, and can provide much-needed relief to overburdened ICU departments when provided in the form of a travel critical care nurse.

Critical care nurses are invaluable members of the care community and their contributions are particularly valued when facilities invite travel critical care nurse professionals to fill openings within their department, or to provide much-needed relief for existing staff.

In addition to the gratification of knowing that your skills and availability are providing much-needed relief to a vital area of a facility, being a critical care travel nurse affords the opportunity to visit exciting places and make new friends while earning competitive compensation with tax-advantaged benefits and perks.

RNs can earn up to $2,300 a week as a travel nurse. Speak to a recruiter today!

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