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How to Become an Acute Care Nurse

A degree may open the door to a variety of opportunities and diverse career paths. The degree programs offered at CTU will not necessarily lead to the featured careers. This collection of articles is intended to help inform and guide you through the process of determining which level of degree and types of certifications align with your desired career path.

To become an Acute Care Nurse, either an associate's degree in nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is required. It's also required to become licensed. This can be done by passing the NCLEX-RN exam.

The primary responsibility of an acute care nurse is to treat patients with serious, critical or complex chronic illnesses. These nurses generally demonstrate advanced practice clinic expertise in caring for a diverse patient population and may also have specialized experience and education in a particular field of medicine, such as neonatal, pediatric and adult-gerontology.1 While a career in acute or emergency care may be appealing, it can be important first to consider the education and skills required for this profession.

Skills and Characteristics

Acute care nurses work in fast-paced environments where a patient may need complex monitoring and therapies, high-intensity interventions or continued vigilance.1 So, it can be crucial for nurses to have all of their fundamental skills as refined as possible. Basic skills acute care nurses should be able to perform include assessing, diagnosing, planning and intervening on behalf of their patients, as well as focusing on health assessment, screening and promotion, risk reduction and preventative care.1 Other necessary skills these nursing positions may require include the ability to:

  • Diagnose, treat and manage patients with acute and chronic illnesses or diseases
  • Help patients and families safely navigate a complex health care system
  • Implement transitions in levels of care1

Additionally, acute care nurses must be able to create and translate best evidence into clinical practice and establish and sustain healthy work environment.1

Required Education

The completion of a nursing degree is essential in becoming a registered nurse (RN) or an acute care nurse. There are a few options available, such as obtaining a diploma, an associate’s degree or a bachelor's degree. However, all nursing programs include supervised clinical experience.2

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for RNs is projected to grow by 16% through 2024. While a diploma program or an associate’s degree can require less of a time commitment, employers might call for the completion of a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Earning a BSN or higher may offer better job prospects than a diploma or an associate’s degree.3

Certifications and Licenses

Upon completion of an approved nursing education program, aspiring acute care nurses must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX) to become a licensed registered nurse. The NCLEX-RN is a standardized test that is given by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) in order to license nursing professionals.2

Registration for the NCLEX can be done on the NCBSN website. A potential RN will need to apply for licensure with their state’s board of nursing and have an Authorization to Test (ATT) form completed. He or she can then register and pay a fee for the exam. It is recommended that a potential nurse start the application and authorization processes well in advance of their target date for taking the test. Once a candidate is approved to proceed with the exam, it is also important to locate and sign up for a testing site because slots can fill up quickly.4

After becoming an RN, a particular certification for an acute care nursing specialty is not necessary. However, some employers may prefer to hire certified critical-care nurses (CCRNs) as this certification validates medical knowledge through rigorous testing and extensive continuing education and clinical requirements.5

Job Market for Acute Care Nurses

The job market for registered nurses is projected to grow much faster than average through 2024, according to the BLS. Much of this growth in the job market is attributed to the needs of the aging baby boomer generation, as these individuals are living longer and lead more active lives. It is also due to increased emphasis on preventative care and the increasing rate of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and obesity.3

In 2014, the BLS released that there were over 2.75 million RN jobs in the United States.3 However, the average employment rate can vary from one geographic area to another. The states with the highest employment level for RNs in May 2016 were California, Texas, New York, Florida and Pennsylvania.6

What to Expect on a Day-to-Day Basis

If there's one job aspect that is consistent for all acute care nurses, or registered nurses in general, is that no two days are alike. Each shift can bring an assortment of new cases with unique challenges and needs wherever a nurse may work. Generally, an acute care nurse may pursue employment in a hospital-based setting, including emergency and intensive care units. However, they can also work in home care, ambulatory care, long-term care, rehabilitation, mobile care and virtual locations.1

Regardless of the workplace or position, these professionals must keep up with the complex assessment and continuous vigilance required of an acute setting. Acute care nurses rely on their specialized body of knowledge, skills and experience to provide care to patients and their families and create healing environments. Foremost, these professionals must serve as reliable health care advocates for patients in need.5

Pursue a Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Colorado Technical University (CTU) offers online nursing degree programs to help students prepare for the next challenge in their careers. CTU offers RN-BSN and MSN degree programs built on prior foundational nursing knowledge and are designed to provide nurses the tools to help deliver evidence-based care and drive change at the bedside. Learn more about CTU’s nursing programs.

1. "AACN Scope and Standards for Acute Care Clinic Nurse Specialist Practice." Retrieved from: (Visited 6/30/17).
2. "How to Become a Registered Nurse." Retrieved from: (Visited 6/20/17).
3. "Registered Nurses: Summary." Retrieved from: (Visited 10/3/17). This data represents national figures and is not based on school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary.
4. “Before the Exam: NCLEX Registration and Authorization to Test.” Retrieved from: (Visited 6/30/17).
5. “Critical-Care Nurse.” Retrieved from: (Visited 6/30/17).
6. "Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2015: 29-1141 Registered Nurses." Retrieved from: (Visited 6/30/17). This data represents national figures and is not based on school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary.

For important information about the educational debt, earnings, and completion rates of students who attended this program, go to CTU cannot guarantee employment or salary. Not all programs are available to residents of all states. Financial aid is available for those who qualify. 1227530 10/17

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