The Acute Care Nursing Skills You Need

A career in acute care nursing can be fast-paced and exciting, with every day looking just a little different than the last. It’s a unique branch of nursing that requires you, in many cases, to have expansive medical knowledge and be prepared to help patients with various urgent medical issues.

Despite the need for a large amount of knowledge, it’s not uncommon for recent graduates to immediately pursue a career in critical care nursing, so don’t rule it out even if you feel intimidated. If you have the personality to work in a fast-paced environment and a solid education, your employer can train you to do the rest. 

If you’re wondering what skills you’ll need as an acute care nurse, read on! We’ll go over the vital skills you need to excel in the critical care nursing profession. 

1. Knowledge of Infections 

Acute care nursing positions may have you working in the emergency room (ER), the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU), or the intensive care unit (ICU). These are all roles in which you’ll need a good understanding of everything related to infections.

This knowledge includes the following:

  • Common symptoms of infection
  • Quickly identifying the potential severity of infections
  • How to manage infections 
  • Reducing infection spread 
  • Treatment, including vital first-aid care like dressing an infected wound after treatment 

Understanding how to help treat a patient with an infection—especially a contagious one—while maintaining safety measures is particularly crucial. Being up to date on tactics for isolating infections like MRSA is key to reducing the infectious spread and preventing an outbreak in your facility.

As someone responsible for hands-on patient care, you may also catch warning signs of an infection between the doctors’ rounds, which can result in earlier treatment and better outcomes for your patients. 

2. Ability to Care for Patients with Central Lines 

Most acute care nurses won’t be responsible for directly administering central lines—a specialized team of central line nurses often takes over there—but you’ll likely be responsible for caring for patients with central lines.

You may need to administer medications through a central line, observe the catheter site for signs of irritation or infection, and help the patient to keep it clean and secure. When it’s time for the patient to be discharged, you may also need to be the one to remove the central line. 

Most hospitals will have their own protocols for central line care, so you can ask to go over this during training. 

3. Familiarity with Cardiac Conditions & Telemetry 

It’s not uncommon for many acute care nurses to work with patients who either have cardiac conditions or are at risk for cardiac issues. 

If the job role you take meets this description, it’s vital to have familiarity with cardiac conditions and telemetry readings. You’ll also need to know how to properly place electrodes in order to perform electrocardiograms (ECGs) and how to place electrodes for cardiac defibrillators in case you need to run a code for high-risk patients.

Keep in mind that cardiac issues may present differently in men than in women, and brush up on these symptoms in advance. 

4. Excellent Communication Skills 

Acute care nursing requires outstanding communication skills. You’re working as part of a cohesive team, and you need to coordinate with certified nurse assistants (CNAs), other nurses during a shift change, medical transport, radiology experts, and the overseeing physician for patient care.

You’ll also need to be able to communicate directly with the patient and their family. While you won’t be the one delivering diagnosis information or treatment plans, it’s common for patients to ask nurses about what tests or procedures will be run or to have questions about treatment after the doctor has left. 

5. Precise Chart Documentation 

Acute care requires not only outstanding communication but precise chart documentation. Every healthcare professional that comes after you will reference your notes and the patient’s chart, and getting everything right can be the difference between life and death.

You don’t want to forget to document an allergy, for example. You also don’t want to miss recording a single symptom because while it may seem minor, sometimes minor symptoms can be the key to cracking a difficult diagnosis. 

Ensure you’re comfortable and familiar with your employer’s charting procedures and software. Then, if you have any questions, always ask. 

6. Knowledge of Emergent Conditions or Concerning Symptoms 

Acute care nurses often have to manage patients coming in with or being at risk for developing emergent conditions. 

You must have a robust and detailed knowledge of different emergent conditions and how to recognize them so you can grab a physician quickly if needed.

For example, someone who reports tingling on one side of their body should immediately be evaluated for a potential stroke. Likewise, abdominal pain without the ability to relieve gas is a red flag for appendicitis.  

7. The Ability to Work Well under Pressure  

The very nature of acute care nursing means you’re likely to work with patients who are often sick, in pain, and potentially very stressed. This type of nursing is a hard job in a high-pressure environment, especially considering that the care you provide can contribute to the patient’s outcome.

You must be able to work well under pressure. If you cannot think clearly in a patient emergency or struggle to prioritize patient care based on need, acute care may not be the career for you. If you can thrive in intensive, urgent situations, however, it’s definitely a career to consider. 

Want to learn more about critical care nursing? Check out our acute care nursing guide here.

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