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What is a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU)?

PICU stands for pediatric intensive care unit. A PICU nurse is a registered nurse (RN) who specializes in treating toddlers, children, and adolescents in the pediatric intensive care unit. The work she has requires a lot of concentration, and generally, one nurse takes care of a maximum of 3 children at a time because of the sensitivity and importance of this work.

A PICU uses costly equipment, such as mechanical ventilators and other patient monitoring systems. PICUs use a large percentage of the budget of a general hospital or a pediatric hospital, which is why the doctors, nurses, and other health care personnel working in the PICU have a higher salary. It is one of the highest-paid nursing specialty professions there is.

PICU nurses care for the following severe conditions in the pediatric intensive care unit:

  • Serious or invasive surgeries
  • Infections that have gotten out of control
  • Substance or drug overdose
  • Severe congenital disorders
  • Severe trauma, wounds, injuries, or severe blows.

RNs working in the PICU must help their pediatric patients recover, help them avoid pain, and watch over their lives. Their patients may require significant interventions to recover and constant monitoring of their vital signs to ensure they are doing well. Therefore, PICU nurses need to have very specific qualities such as great concentration in their work, the ability to make good decisions in a short time and under a lot of stress (since at any time the situation of their patients may change), excellent knowledge of human growth, and the needs for each stage of care. They need a lot of security and confidence, as well as being able to inspire calmness despite seeing their patients and families suffer.

When a registered nurse is thinking about whether working as a PICU specialist is what she would like to do, she should know all the responsibilities of a PICU nurse first and learn about the essential qualities she must develop to do her job well. Some of the duties that PICU nurses carry out daily are:

  • Monitoring vitals and specialized readings. Monitoring vitals constantly, with the help of the doctors' teams, is essential to prevent complications by reading abnormalities in the patient's vital signs. It is also thanks to this monitoring that immediate action can be taken in case of a complication.
  • Administering medication. PICU nurses must administer prescribed medication, insert or remove catheters, and administer emergency treatments to save patients' lives.
  • Record everything that happens in the PICU. It is essential to have up-to-date records of all care, medications, updated treatment plan, etc., for each patient, and since this is intensive care, there are regular changes, and the records are always up to date and on hand.
  • Become part of the multidisciplinary care team with doctors and other specialists, and together they can make a treatment plan for pediatric patients. This requires listening and consultation skills to make the best decisions.
  • Actively communicate with the patient's family and loved ones. Communicating assertively with family members to reassure them and provide information about what is happening with the patients is essential.

It is also essential to know that the work of the PICU is an intense job, which sometimes requires putting emotions aside since pediatric patients are young and vulnerable, and often feelings can get mixed up with the results that are needed immediately in emergencies. PICU nurses must have a separate space to help them cope with emotions they cannot cope with immediately because of their work. 

How to Become a PICU Nurse

 To become a PICU nurse, one must first become a registered nurse through the study, certification, examination, and licensing that grants the right to work as a registered nurse. Once registered nurses become certified, they must accumulate pediatric and PICU experience and certifications to become PICU nurses. Any relevant coursework helps obtain a permanent or per diem position.

The average salary of a PICU nurse per year is $106,709. This salary is higher if working per diem shifts (also called pro re nata or PRN), which allows for higher hourly pay and greater flexibility in scheduling. Nurses can find per diem jobs near their area with the help of the Nursa app, which connects hospitals with healthcare workers. Of course, another option is to work as a travel nurse, for a higher salary and with the advantage of visiting new places and traveling. Or, if nurses prefer to stay close to home, look for shifts as a local travel nurse. They can search for per diem jobs and travel nurses in the same application.


Booher, RN
Blog published on:
August 17, 2022

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