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How to Become an ICU Nurse

2nd June 21

Working in the ICU is a highly charged environment dealing with both emergencies and planned major surgeries. Whatever the case, it requires healthcare staff to be on top of their game. If you can handle the pace, you’ll be a part of a crucial team that saves lives daily. But before you become an ICU nurse, it’s wise to make sure it’s right for you ahead of time.

Any nursing environment has its challenges. People generally come into your unit when they are facing difficulties with their health. Which can be quite distressing depending on the severity of their issues.

This is only amplified in the ICU where patients are often rushed in with acute care needs. The steps you and your team take in these instances can often be the difference between the patient living or dying. That’s why working in these environments requires quick and clear thinking, stamina and a steady hand under pressure.

If you’re drawn to helping people who are at their most vulnerable, you could find great fulfilment as an ICU nurse. To be sure, find out more about what the role entails, the skills required and how to get started below.

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Is being an ICU Nurse for me?

The ICU is a highly specialised area compared to other medical wards. As such, the nature of the duties you’ll perform will be quite different to other nurses.

You’ll often be dealing with seriously ill patients or those requiring specialist monitoring and treatment after surgery. Planned admissions could include anything from cardiac, neurology, renal or transplant surgery.

This could be within specialist wards depending on the ICU unit you work in. Where you’d solely work with children, cardiac or trauma patients. Otherwise, you could work with general patients and handle a complete mixture of cases.

In any case, you’ll need to know the uses and functions of a wider range of equipment in these environments.

You’ll work as part of a multidisciplinary team that each plays a vital role in patient care. This requires you to work flawlessly together to ensure patient and treatment information is communicated effectively. This ensures the patient gets what they need at exactly the right time.

Generally, ICU nurses care for just two patients at one time, due to their needs being greater than the average patient's. You’ll have to provide constant and close supervision to make sure they stay stable and on track to recovery. Take care to work cautiously around any tubes, ventilation systems or IV drips your patients may need. And logging all essential information on their condition as it changes.

The hours can be long and patient circumstances can take a toll on you emotionally. But the feeling you’ll get when they recover and go home to their families makes it all worthwhile.

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The Skills you’ll need for the ICU

To work effectively in this fast-paced, emotional environment, employers will want you to have a certain set of skills. So be sure to demonstrate these in your CV, application and during your interview.

  • Empathy - to deal with patients or family members who’ve received bad news and offer emotional support.
  • Organisation - to know exactly where and how to find the information you need to perform your job correctly.
  • Teamworking and Communication – to ensure no errors are made in patient care and every team member is working with correct information.
  • Strength and Stamina – to cope with the physical demands of the job like being on your feet all day and lifting patients where required.
  • Resilience - to remain strong and emotionally resilient in the face of difficult situations.
  • Passion – to remain committed to a job that often has long hours and is both emotionally and physically demanding.
  • Perceptive - to be able to spot signs of a patients changing or deteriorating condition as early as possible.
  • Critical Thinking – to think quickly and critically when patient conditions change to swiftly determine the best call for action.
  • Calm Under Pressure – to perform duties correctly regardless of the circumstances and reassure concerned family members or loved ones.
  • Technical ICU Nursing Skills - to confidently work with a multidisciplinary team, medications, medical equipment and other vital nursing elements.

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The Qualifications Required

There is no specific degree course for ICU nursing. However, you can make your way into this area once you become a qualified nurse. To get to this point you’ll need to complete a degree course that is approved by the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

Generally, those who study child nursing go on to work in the child ICU. If you were to study adult nursing instead, you would align yourself more so with the regular ICU. So, this is something to consider ahead of applying if being a child ICU nurse is what you’re aiming for.

Once qualified and registered, it’s typical for nurses to complete a placement in the ICU or a high-dependency setting. This helps provide you with essential hands-on experience in an intense nursing environment. And it allows you to be sure it’s where you want to work.

There are also positions in the ICU offering preceptorships or supernumerary introductions that graduates can take advantage of.

Once in the ICU, with experience, you can work your way up to more senior positions. You could become a Band 6 Charge Nurse or an ICU Senior Nurse. These positions generally provide opportunities to train as a mentor. You can also often complete a master’s course or train in specialist subject areas such as advanced trauma nursing.

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Get started with an Online Course

In order to start a nursing degree, you’ll need to meet the entry requirements for the university. These were traditionally a combination of GCSEs and A Levels. But now there are other alternative qualifications that are accepted in their place.

Generally, universities would ask for 5 GCSEs at grades 4 (C) or above which includes Maths, English and sometimes Biology. If you don’t have English and maths, you can now complete Functional Skills courses in their place.

For A Levels, you’d previously need at least two in a subject relevant to nursing. But now Access to Higher Education Diplomas provides highly targeted pre-university learning.

An Access to Higher Education Diploma (Nursing) covers essential topics for any nursing degree. Removing the need for A Levels and allowing you to gain your education quickly online.

The course covers:

  • Cell Biology
  • The History of the National Health Service
  • Human Nutrition & The Digestive System
  • The Roles & Responsibilities of the Registered Nurse
  • Introduction to Psychology
  • Human Reproduction, Growth & Development
  • Approaches to Health
  • The Human Muscular and Skeletal System
  • Social Factors in Health and Social Care
  • The Brain & Nervous System (Psychology)
  • The Human Endocrine & Nervous System
  • Inequalities in Health & Illness
  • Human Immunity
  • Poverty & Health
  • Human Disease & Prevention
  • Equality and Diversity within Healthcare

Studied online at your pace, students on average complete these courses within 9 months. Making applying to university possible within a year and cutting the time it takes you to get qualified.

learndirect is the leading UK distance learning provider, with many online courses to help you reach your career goals.

Find out more about starting your career in nursing through our Access to HE Diploma (Nursing) below.

learndirect - Become an ICU Nurse

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