Acute Care Nurse Education Requirements

Working as an acute care nurse (also called a “critical care nurse) can be exciting, challenging, and wildly fulfilling. So it’s not surprising that the career draws many hardworking and enthusiastic nurses. That said, because the job often requires a certain degree of independent working and strong medical knowledge, it’s essential to ensure that you’re ready for the challenge. 

So how do you become an acute care nurse? What education, licenses, and certifications are required, and how long does it take? 

This post will review the acute care nurse education requirements needed to start working as a critical care nurse at all levels of education. 

The Degree Requirements to Become an Acute Care Nurse 

To work as an acute care nurse, you must obtain a nursing license. Every nursing license requires you to complete a formal education program before taking a licensure exam. However, it’s important to note that there are accelerated and bridge programs if you don’t have several years to complete a traditional program. 

Based on licensure, let’s look at the degree requirements for becoming an acute care nurse. 

Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) 

LPNs must obtain a practical nursing diploma before sitting for their licensure exam. This program is typically completed in about twelve months. 

Registered Nurses (RNs) 

You can become an RN with either an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) degree; you’ll sit for the same exam for your RN licensure regardless of which degree you choose.

That said, it’s not uncommon for employers within the critical care specialty to strongly prefer hiring nurses with their BSNs. In fact, some employers may only hire RNs with BSN degrees.

RNs with BSN degrees can take on more advanced tasks and have a more robust medical education that can be vital for their success in acute care. You can also earn more as an RN with a BSN compared to RNs with ADNs. 

If you already have an ADN, you can look for bridge programs incorporating your previously-earned credits to complete your BSN on an accelerated schedule. 

Obtaining a BSN can take two to four years, depending on the program you choose and whether you have a previous degree. 

Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs)

You must complete a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) to become an APRN. APRNs can work as nurse practitioners, allowing them to be more involved in their patients’ diagnostic and treatment processes. 

You can also go straight past an MSN and complete your doctorate of nursing practice (DNP) after your BSN in a bridge program, which also allows you to become an APRN once you pass your licensure exam. 

An MSN degree takes a year and a half to three years to complete, and a DNP may require an average of two years to complete if you’re enrolled in the program full-time. However, these programs can be completed in anywhere from one and a half to four years. 

Acute Care Certification Requirements 

After completing your chosen degree program(s) and passing your licensure exams, you’ll need to consider what specific career path you’re most interested in taking.

There are plenty of options available as a critical care nurse, and the potential additional certifications you pursue will depend on your chosen job role.

Most critical care nursing positions will require obtaining a Basic Life Support (BLS) certification. Additionally, there are plenty of specialized certifications for acute care nurses, including cardiac, neonatal, remote care, and progressive care specialties. If you’re working in the emergency room, you may need an Acute/Critical Care Nursing (CCRN) certification. Alternatively, someone working in a pediatric facility may need a CCRN Pediatric certification

If you’d like to work in a particular type of facility or job role, look at job listings online. See which certifications are required before you’re hired. In addition, look at which certifications may be required by your employer within the first year after you’re hired. 

Other Requirements Needed to Become an Acute Care Nurse 

Since acute care nurses work with critically ill and sometimes emergent patients, additional work experience or extensive training may be required. Some employers will allow you to work in an acute care position immediately upon graduating from nursing school and obtaining your license, but others won’t.

It’s not uncommon to see any of the following requirements for jobs in acute care:

  • Three to six-month probationary training periods with a formal assessment at the end of that training period
  • Six months of working experience as a nurse before you can work in an acute care role
  • Experience as a critical care professional, with standard requirements being either three or six months 

Final Thoughts 

You’ll be required to complete a formal degree program and obtain licensure to work as an acute care nurse. Depending on the job position, you may also need past work experience, a more extensive training period, or certifications. You can become an acute care nurse in as little as a year, but if you want to pursue advanced degrees like an MSN or DNP degree, it may take an average of four to eight years to complete your schooling. 

When determining what education, certifications, and work experience you’ll need, look at the specific role types and specialties you’re most interested in joining. That will help give you an idea of what credentials to pursue. 

Interested in learning more about acute care nursing? See our ultimate guide to critical care nursing!

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