Acute care nurse monitoring a patient

When some envision their lives as a nurse, they imagine working in a fast-paced emergency department, tending to patients in dire situations, and saving lives. These types of nurses are specialists in acute care.

Acute care is a type of healthcare where patients receive short-term treatment for a sudden illness or injury.

Acute care nurses often work with patients in critical condition, so they use a range of emergency and trauma nursing skills to stabilize people and provide swift medical intervention when needed.

Without acute care nurses, patients who arrive at hospitals wouldn’t have the expert care they need. Whether it’s someone who’s been in a car crash, suffered a severe burn, or sustained a fall injury, acute care patients can arrive at the ER with any number of different problems.

What is the difference between an acute care nurse and a registered nurse (RN)?

Acute care nurses are registered nurses with advanced training and specialized skills in acute care. They work exclusively with patients whose conditions require emergency medical attention. Acute care nurses can work in emergency departments, trauma units or hospitals, ICUs, urgent care clinics, nursing homes, or residential healthcare facilities.

Many acute care nurses choose a subspecialty like cardiology, pulmonology, or neurology. Acute care nurses benefit from learning advanced nursing strategies from various fields to better care for patients. You never know what a person’s condition might be or how it might change.

“Expect the unexpected” is every acute care nurse’s motto.

What qualifications does an acute care nurse need?

Qualifications for acute care nurses will vary depending on where you want to work, such as in the ER or ICU. However, all acute care nurses must have an RN or APRN (Advanced Practice Register Nurse) license and at least two years of experience in acute care or hospital setting.

Because patients depend on the acute care nurse’s skills, employers seek out those who have had time to build confidence as a nurse. They have expert observational skills and rapid reflexes and know how to stay calm and act quickly during emergencies. The following are some of the key tasks that an acute care nurse will be required to perform.

  • Airway management

  • Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS)

  • Arrhythmia analysis

  • Cardioversion and defibrillation

  • Central line insertion

  • Intra-aortic balloon pumps (IABP) care

  • Resuscitation pharmacotherapy

  • Sheath removal

A good nurse also has many qualities that are especially important in critical care. These include attention to detail, dependability, resourcefulness, quick thinking, and critical problem-solving. You must also be highly tolerant of stress and resilient in the face of pressure. This career could be overwhelming if you aren’t comfortable working under immense pressure.

What work does an acute care nurse do day to day?

Acute care nurses tend to patients at different triage levels in an emergency healthcare setting. They perform physical assessments, clean and dress wounds, treat burns, and monitor vitals. They insert intravenous lines and administer and monitor blood transfusions and catheters. They may stabilize some patients with life support techniques, including various airway management skills and cardiac stabilization.

In ICUs, the nurse monitors patients’ conditions, observes any signs of change, and administers any treatments or medications prescribed by the attending physician. 

Acute care nurses treat patients with severe physical trauma in a trauma unit. Their jobs are some of the most demanding, as their patients tend to be in the worst conditions and have the greatest risks.

No matter where you decide to work, expect to perform these duties daily as an acute care nurse:

  • Assess patients and record any symptoms

  • Monitor vital signs and arrange diagnostic tests

  • Create care plans for a variety of patients

  • Administer IVs or manage catheters

  • Administer medications prescribed by a doctor

  • Use specialized medical equipment like ventilators

As an acute care nurse, you’ll draw from various skills and expert knowledge to treat young and old patients. Their conditions can change instantly, and you’ll have to be prepared to treat them at a moment’s notice.

Where do acute care nurses work?

Specialties in acute care can influence where you decide to work. Most acute care nurse jobs are located in:

  • Emergency departments

  • Intensive care units

  • Trauma units

  • Urgent care centers

  • Outpatient emergency clinics

What is it like to be an acute care nurse?

Knowing that your care saved someone’s life is an incredible feeling. Acute care nurses see the direct impact their nursing has had on a person’s health. They can watch patients progress from being in critical condition to recovering and eventually being discharged.

However, the best cases aren’t the only one's nurses in acute care deal with. They also have many difficult scenarios regularly unfold, which means watching patients they’ve been with for a while suddenly take a turn for the worst. Or they lose patients who arrived t in poor condition, and they are unable to stabilize them before they pass away. It’s especially hard when your patients are children.

Acute care nursing is fast-paced and physically and mentally demanding. You’ll have to be on your feet for 12 to 14 hours at a time, and the stress of the work can make it difficult to unwind and relax after your shift ends.

Unfortunately, every patient has a happy ending. Taking this personally will impact how you treat others and make it difficult to perform your job. You have to be willing to focus on what you can do in order to stay motivated.

Advantages and disadvantages of a career as an acute care nurse

If being a nurse is your dream, or you're thinking of choosing this specialty, it’s helpful to get a full picture and know exactly what to expect. Here are some of the pros and cons of choosing a career in acute care.

Advantages of choosing a career as an acute care nurse

See your impact on patients’ lives

One of the great things about acute care nursing is that you can see the direct results of your efforts right away, whether it's helping someone get better or preventing them from getting worse, it’s wonderful to see the work you do make such a big difference in your patients’ lives.

Exciting cases

You get to work with so many patients of different ages, cultural backgrounds, and health needs. From a nursing perspective, this makes your job much more engaging and stops it from becoming monotonous. You also learn a lot from your patients, as each case allows you to practice different nursing skills.

Stimulating work environment

Many nurses love the fast pace of acute care settings. Getting to work with patients with such dynamic needs means you always have something to do. This could be a great career fit if you enjoy quick-thinking, problem-solving, and always moving from one task to the next.

Disadvantages of choosing a career as an acute care nurse

Physically and mentally challenging

There is no shortage of hard work to put in as an acute care nurse. You’ll have to lift and turn patients, stretch over them, and be on your feet for long periods of time (usually 12 to 14 hours). The physical toll of acute care nursing can even pale compared to some professionals' mental stress. It’s not always easy working under high-stress levels; it’s even harder when you suffer the loss of a patient and quickly have to move on to the next.

Long hours

Acute care nurses work long shifts and often several days in a row. You may have the typical hospital schedule of three days on and four days off. While this gives you some time to replenish your energy, working in acute care on such an intense schedule can still be taxing. If you have a partner or children, then long shifts can make it harder to balance your family life with your career.

High risk of burnout

While nurses who choose acute care are passionate about what they do, the stressors of the job can put them on the fast track to burnout. Being so emotionally invested in your patients isn’t easy all the time, and you have to make sure you’re taking care of yourself as much as possible.

Please take a look at the benefits of working as a nurse with Shiftmed, where these disadvantages can be reduced. 

How to become an acute care nurse

A career as an acute care nurse starts with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Bachelor’s degrees are the gold standard education for registered nurses, as they give you the highest level of training and opportunity for growth post-graduation.

Here are the steps you can follow to become an acute care nurse:

  • Earn a BSN from an accredited nursing school

  • Pass the NCLEX-RN exam

  • Apply for your state nursing license

  • Look for jobs in acute care settings to gain experience

  • Consider additional certifications, like CEN (Certified Emergency Nurse) or CCRN (Critical Care Registered Nurse)

Frequently asked questions about acute care nurses

What is the role of acute care?

Acute care is a secondary type of healthcare that provides rapid treatment to patients with life-threatening or urgent illnesses or injuries.

What is acute and critical care nursing?

Acute nursing requires a level head, quick thinking, and constant vigilance. Nurses in acute and critical care treat patients with severe health problems that require immediate medical attention.

Is acute care the same as med-surg?

Yes, the care that takes place in hospitals is generally considered acute. ER, OR, PACU, ICU, and NICU require nurses with acute care skills. However, there are also patients admitted to hospitals for routine surgical procedures. These patients are more stable than those that arrive in critical condition.