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ICU Nursing Skills: The Must-Have Skills to Succeed

28th May 21

Every nurse will face trying, stressful and emotionally draining times in their work. Witnessing the many difficult situations where people can face challenges with their health isn’t easy. But nursing in the intensive care unit means you’re dealing with some of the most vulnerable patients in the healthcare system. And as such, there are certain skills you need for ICU nursing.

Patients in the ICU need constant and close supervision as their condition could easily take a turn for the worse. And this is why the nurse to patient ratio is different here than in other wards.

Generally, ICU units will have one to two patients per nurse. As your attention needs to be on them as much as possible to give them the best chance of recovery. You’ll perform the same duties as other nurses but your patients will often be intubated, ventilated, and have multiple IV drips at once.

Depending on the ICU unit, you could be working with general patients. Or in specialist wards like those working with children, cardiac or trauma patients. And you’ll need to know the uses and functions of much more equipment in this higher stakes environment.

If you’re considering nursing in an intensive care unit, find out the must-have skills to succeed.

learndirect - ICU Nursing Skills: The Must-Have Skills to Succeed

Teamworking and Communication

Nurses always work as part of a multidisciplinary team, but in the ICU, teamworking skills are essential. Each health professional you deal with will play a part in the acute care of your patient.   Without effective communication between teams, errors in treatment can occur. And treating patients with such severe needs, the slightest mistake could have a detrimental effect on your patient’s condition. A good team culture is also incredibly important for morale in this environment. As you need to be there for each other and provide support in this highly challenging environment.


Similarly to communicating with the team, poor organisation skills can also lead to errors in patient care. Working in such a chaotic environment requires you to be switched on at all times with a handle on the situation. You’ll need to know exactly where and how to find the information you need to perform your job correctly. But you also need to make sure the information you log about patients is completely accurate and up to date. If patient records and other documentation isn’t filled out correctly, the team may be working on inaccurate data. Perhaps over or under administering medication or wrongly providing other elements of care. In line with the patient’s previous state of condition and not what they actually need at the time.  

learndirect - ICU Nursing Skills: The Must-Have Skills to Succeed

Strength, Resilience and Passion

Working in the ICU is incredibly challenging. The hours can be long and caring for critically ill and unstable patients is both emotionally and physically demanding. As an ICU nurse, you need to be strong and emotionally resilient in the face of difficult situations. You’ll often have to deal with patients or family members who’ve received bad news and offer emotional support.

As such, you’ll need to be caring, but also a pillar of strength in these situations. This requires you to find the balance between being compassionate but not internalising the distress and taking it home with you.

Perceptive and Calm Under Pressure

A patient’s condition in the ICU can deteriorate quite quickly. As their nurse, you need to be able to spot signs of their changing condition as early as possible. This means thinking quickly and critically in these circumstances to swiftly determine the best call for action. These are often emotionally charged situations, especially if family members are present on the ward. You’ll need to remain calm while you perform your duties. As well as be a comforting and reassuring presence for others who are concerned or upset about the unfolding situation.

learndirect - ICU Nursing Skills: The Must-Have Skills to Succeed

Qualifications for Nursing

There are many skills you need for successful ICU nursing. Aside from the above, you’ll have to have technical nursing skills. These will enable you to confidently work with a multidisciplinary team, medications, medical equipment and other vital nursing elements.

You’ll gain these through a nursing degree, which is an essential step to becoming a registered nurse. Your nursing degree must be approved by the Nursing and Midwifery Council for you to gain registration upon graduation.

Traditionally, to meet the entry requirements for university you’d need a combination of GCSEs and A Levels. This would be 5 GCSEs at grades 4 (C) or above which includes maths, English and sometimes biology. Then at least two A Levels in a relevant subject to nursing.

Now, there are other alternative qualifications you can take to meet the threshold for university entry. Functional Skills courses can stand in place of maths and English GCSEs. And Access to Higher Education Diplomas are qualifications that remove the need for A Levels.

Aside from providing more options for entry, these courses are highly beneficial to learners as they can be studied online. Meaning you’ll work your way towards a nursing degree through courses studied at a time and pace that suits you.  

learndirect - ICU Nursing Skills: The Must-Have Skills to Succeed

Access to HE Diploma Nursing

An Access to Higher Education Diploma (Nursing) is an excellent starting point for all nursing degrees. It covers many essential topics for the profession as well as modules that focus on giving you the study skills for university.

During the course you will cover:

  • 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

As such a highly targeted course, it removes the need for multiple A Levels. And as Access to HE Diplomas are studied online at your pace, students on average complete them within 9 months. So you can head to university within a year. Shaving valuable time off your journey into an ICU nursing career.

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

Our Access to Higher Education Diploma (Nursing) allows you to study online, at home, around your current schedule. You’ll also benefit from dedicated tutor support when required and flexible payments to spread the cost of your learning.

Find out more about how you can work towards your career in ICU nursing. Simply click the link to view our Access to HE Diploma (Nursing) below.

learndirect - Become an ICU Nurse

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