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The US population, which is both growing and aging, increasingly demands acute care services to treat patients with life-threatening conditions, critically ill patients, and other individuals requiring immediate healthcare.  

Since most hospital units offer acute care, nurses with this experience are in great demand. Read on to learn what acute care nursing means, how to become an acute care nurse, how much you can earn, and more. 

Want to go straight to finding acute care jobs? Pick up per diem hospital shifts with Nursa, an open nurse market connecting hospitals and other facilities to clinicians looking for per diem jobs.

Table of Contents

What Is Acute Care?

Acute care refers to a level of health care in which patients receive treatment for acute conditions, such as severe episodes of an illness, conditions resulting from disease or trauma, or recovery from surgery. Whether a hospital has 50 beds or 500, the healthcare services that most hospitals offer enter the acute care category.

According to Hirshon and others (2013), any standard medical meaning of acute care emphasizes the essential aspect of time pressure. Whether acute care is promotive, preventive, curative, rehabilitative, or palliative, its effectiveness largely depends on rapid intervention. Acute care is a broad category encompassing trauma care, emergency medicine, urgent care, critical care, pre-hospital emergency care, acute care surgery, and short-term inpatient stabilization. The following are some specific examples of the multiple domains of acute care:

  • Treatment of patients with acute surgical needs, including acute appendicitis, life-threatening injuries, or strangulated hernias
  • Treatment of patients with acute limb- or life-threatening medical and possibly surgical needs, including acute cerebrovascular accidents
  • Ambulatory care in facilities delivering medical care outside hospital emergency departments, such as evaluation of an injured ankle or fever in a child
  • Treatment of patients with acute needs before delivery of definitive treatment, such as administering intravenous (IV) fluids to a critically injured patient before transferring them to an operating room
  • The care provided until the patient arrives at a formal healthcare facility capable of giving definitive care, including care by ambulance personnel or evaluation of acute health problems by local healthcare providers
  • Specialized care of patients with life-threatening conditions who require comprehensive care and constant monitoring, such as patients with seizures or severe respiratory problems requiring endotracheal intubation

Acute care is an entry point to healthcare for patients with urgent conditions. Acute care services, along with primary and preventive care, are fundamental aspects of healthcare delivery.

What Does ACU Stand For?

The acronym ACU stands for acute care unit. This term generally refers to a non-ICU unit providing care to children and adults. It is similar, in many cases, to a general Medical-Surgical floor. 

By definition, an acute care unit offers time-sensitive, short-term care to patients in critical condition. Acute care patients are recovering from illness or surgery and are usually ready to be discharged within a few days. Patients who are stable but unable to return to their homes may move to a transitional care unit or a skilled nursing facility.

What Is an Acute Care Unit in a Hospital?

Acute care is such a broad term that it encompasses most hospital units. For example, acute care children’s hospital jobs could include positions in pediatrics, pediatric telemetry, the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), etc. Acute care nurses can also find medical-surgical (Med/Surg) nursing jobs or pick up shifts in the intensive care unit (ICU). At Level 1 or 2 trauma centers or heart center hospitals, nurses may also find acute care jobs in cardiovascular intensive care units (CIVCUs).

Patients requiring acute care may be cared for by various healthcare professionals, including the following: 

  • Cardiopulmonary specialists
  • Phlebotomists
  • Registered nurses (RNs)
  • Certified nursing assistants (CNAs) or patient care technicians (PCTs)
  • Respiratory therapists
  • Physical therapists
  • Speech therapists
  • Pharmacists
  • Social workers
  • Dieticians

What Does an Acute Care Nurse Do?

Nurse with older patient
Compassionate communication is what an Acute Nurse does

The responsibilities of an acute care nurse vary depending on their specific role and work setting. Here are some typical duties of a registered nurse in an acute care hospital:

  • Utilizing the nursing process to assess, plan, evaluate, and implement a patient plan of care 
  • Assessing patient records and changes in the patient’s condition, notifying the physician or supervisor, and intervening appropriately
  • Promoting patient and family-centered compassionate communication
  • Delegating tasks based on the needs of the patient and the skill level of the RN or support staff, considering the maintenance of a safe environment, the patient’s condition, the complexity of the intervention, and the predictability of the outcome
  • Participating with an interdisciplinary team to evaluate clinical care or health services
  • Supervising CNAs or PCTs

How to Become an Acute Care Nurse or CNA

Certified nursing assistants and registered nurses can both work in acute care. However, hospitals generally require a minimum of acute care experience depending on the license type and unit.

  • CNA: To pick up PRN hospital shifts with Nursa, CNAs typically must have at least six months of hospital experience in any unit or two years of experience in long-term care settings.
  • RN: Registered nurses interested in picking up PRN hospital shifts must have previous experience in the unit they apply to work in. 
  • PRN jobs in Med/Surg: RNs can generally apply to Medical-Surgical shifts with nine to 12 months of experience in that area.
  • PRN jobs in Pediatrics: RNs interested in Pediatrics must have at least two years of experience in that specialty.
  • PRN jobs in the ICU: Per diem RNs must have two to three years of intensive care experience for ICU jobs.
  • PRN jobs in the ER: RNs typically need two to three years of emergency nursing experience to pick up per diem shifts in this unit.
  • PRN PICU jobs: These jobs generally require RNs to have at least three years of experience in the pediatric intensive care unit.

How Much Do Acute Care Nurses and CNAs Make?

Since wages vary significantly throughout the US, there is no simple answer to the question of income. Nevertheless, the following average salaries offer a frame of reference for nurses and nursing assistants working in hospitals. 

Acute Care CNA Salary

Hospitals are among the highest-paying settings for CNAs. Whereas the annual mean wage for CNAs nationwide is $36,220, CNAs in general medical and surgical hospitals make a mean wage of $37,820 per year, and in specialty hospitals, this average increases to $38,780 per year.

Acute Care RN Salary

Hospitals are also high-paying work settings for registered nurses. Compared to the national average of $89,010, RNs in general medical and surgical hospitals make an average of $90,600 annually, and RNs in specialty hospitals make $91,290 annually. However, registered nurses in psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals earn $84,920, significantly below the national average for RNs.

How Can Nurses and CNAs Make More Money?

Registered nurses and CNAs can earn higher hourly wages than the abovementioned averages by picking up per diem hospital jobs. Mental hospitals, medical and surgical hospitals, children’s hospitals, etc., may all need to contract per diem clinicians to cover staffing gaps. Since these jobs are short-term and urgent in nature, hospitals typically pay per diem RNs and CNAs significantly higher hourly rates.

Why Choose Acute Care Nursing

Aside from higher pay, RNs, CNAs, and PCTs may prefer to pick up hospital jobs versus shifts in other settings because of the valuable experience that acute care settings offer. Since acute care is short-term, nurses and CNAs care for a variety of patients with a wide range of health conditions. Patients stay in acute care hospitals for short periods, so every day is different. This variety makes jobs interesting and leads to significant professional growth.

What Makes a Good Acute Care Nurse

Not all settings require nurses to have the same knowledge or skills. The following are skills, qualities, and knowledge that are essential in acute care:

  • Capacity to make accurate clinical assessments and judgments
  • Ability to document patient care in an electronic medical record, maintaining confidentiality
  • Capacity to work effectively as part of a team and educate other nurses and nursing assistants
  • Ability to prioritize tasks
  • Initiative and ability to work independently
  • Excellent verbal, written, and presentation skills
  • Ability to provide compassionate and respectful counseling and emotional support
Ability to educate other nurses makes a good Acute Care Nurse

What Is a Code Blue at a Hospital?

A “code blue” indicates that a patient has cardiac or respiratory arrest or another medical emergency and cannot be moved. Generally, a code blue refers to an adult patient, but in some hospitals, it could also refer to a child or neonate.

What Is a Code Red at a Hospital?

“Code red” means fire. This notification alerts hospital workers to respond to a fire while avoiding panic among patients and the general public. A “code red all clear” announcement indicates that the danger of the fire or the fire drill has ended.

Although the meaning of codes is generally the same across hospitals, it is advisable for per diem clinicians to inquire about the use of and the procedures for different codes in each facility where they work.

How Can I Find Nursing Jobs in Hospitals near Me?

Acute care is a broad area of nursing, encompassing many specialties, such as Med/Surg, ICU, and ER nursing. Therefore, if acute care nursing has caught your attention, learn more about these unique nursing specialties to help you determine which career path is the best for you. 

Already have acute care work experience? Then, go straight to picking up per diem hospital jobs. Whether you’re looking for hospital jobs in Salem, shifts at a children’s hospital in Colorado, or short-term jobs at a child’s hospital in Los Angeles, you may find precisely what you’re looking for with Nursa.

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