What Does a PACU Nurse Do?

PACU nurse with patient in the recovery room

Every year, around 40 to 50 million surgeries are performed across the US, involving an entire team of healthcare professionals. Among this team are post-anesthesia care unit nurses who support patients in their recovery immediately following surgery. 

If you’re interested in becoming a nurse in a hospital post-anesthesia care unit (PACU), this blog post will guide you through everything you need to know about this unit, including what your responsibilities would look like and what you could expect when working as a PACU nurse.
 

What Does PACU Stand For?

The abbreviation PACU stands for post-anesthesia care unit. A PACU nurse is a nurse who works in a hospital’s post-anesthesia care unit, supporting patients as they recover after having undergone anesthesia.
 

What Is a Post-Anesthesia Care Unit in a Hospital?

A post-anesthesia care unit in a hospital is a specialized care unit where patients are taken immediately after surgery. The PACU is designed to accommodate patients who have undergone general, regional, or local anesthesia. These patients receive care from PACU nurses—usually registered nurses—and other medical professionals—typically anesthesiologists—as they recover from the effects of anesthesia. 

Located near operating rooms, a post-anesthesia care unit is sometimes referred to as post-anesthesia recovery or PAR—or simply “recovery.” It is a critical unit in hospitals and other medical centers.
 

What Does Post-Anesthesia Care Mean in Medical Terms?

According to the American Society of Anesthesiologists, the medical aspects of care in the PACU “shall be governed by policies and procedures which have been reviewed and approved by the Department of Anesthesiology” and “the design, equipment and staffing of the PACU shall meet requirements of the facility’s accrediting and licensing bodies.”

The American Society of Anesthesiologists has established the following standards to regulate the care of patients following surgeries:

           
  1. All patients who have undergone general, regional, or monitored anesthesia care will receive appropriate management. 
  2.        
  3. A member of the anesthesia team familiar with the patient’s condition will accompany the patient being transported to the post-anesthesia care unit. 
  4.        
  5. As the patient is transported to the post-anesthesia care unit, they will be continually monitored and treated based on their condition.
  6.        
  7. When the patient arrives in the PACU with a member of the anesthesia care team, they will be re-evaluated. The anesthesia care team member who provides this evaluation will brief a PACU nurse on the patient’s condition and any other information relevant to the patient’s state and recovery. 
  8.        
  9. While the patient is in the PACU, their condition will be continuously monitored and evaluated.
  10.        
  11. A physician will be responsible for discharging a patient from the post-anesthesia care unit.

For a detailed list of the full guidelines, refer to the American Society of Anesthesiologists' standards for post-anesthesia care.
 

What Is a Post-Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU) Nurse?

Post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) nurses are sometimes called peri-anesthesia nurses or recovery room nurses; they are responsible for observing and treating patients after they undergo anesthesia. The type of anesthesia a patient has received will determine the length of their stay in the PACU. 

A PACU nurse works closely with other medical professionals, namely members of the anesthesia care team, to assess patients, ensure their recovery is as smooth as possible, and determine when they are ready to leave the PACU.
 

What Does a PACU Nurse Do?

Responsibilities of a PACU nurse include the following:

           
  • Checking patients’ vital signs and levels of consciousness and observing for any possible side effects from anesthesia
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  • Checking and changing dressings (bandages)
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  • Regulating intravenous (IV) fluids
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  • Administering pain medications as needed
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  • Answering patients’ questions and putting them at ease, as much as possible, if they are feeling anxious or confused

In addition, according to the standards and guidelines established by the American Society of Anesthesiologists, nurses are also involved in patient care in the post-anesthesia care unit in the following ways: 

           
  • When the patient arrives in the PACU, they will be re-evaluated by a member of the anesthesia care team who has accompanied them from surgery to the post-anesthesia care unit. This member of the medical team provides a report to the responsible PACU nurse about the patient’s current condition.
  •        
  • A member of the anesthesia care team will share information with the responsible PACU nurse on the patient’s condition prior to surgery and any details about the patient’s surgery or anesthesia experience.
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  • While the American Society of Anesthesiologists states that a physician is responsible for the patient’s discharge, in some cases in which the physician is not present or accessible, the responsible PACU nurse will determine if the patient meets the criteria needed to be discharged from the PACU. In these cases, the nurse will note the name of the physician accepting responsibility for the patient on the patient’s record. 

Is PACU Nursing Right for Me?

If you think PACU nursing may be right for you, check out Nursa’s Ultimate Guide to the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU), which has information on educational requirements and professional certifications needed to become a PACU nurse. 

In the meantime, while you work on building up the experience needed to be a PACU nurse, consider picking up per diem shifts in your free time or even transitioning to working per diem full time. 

Want to connect with PACU nurses to find out the real scoop on what this specialty is like behind the scenes? Join the Nursa community to connect with other health professionals and learn from their experiences.

Read More About this specialty

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