What Does the Acute Care Nursing Job Description Entail?

Acute care nursing may be a great career fit if you like a fast-paced, keeps-you-on-your-toes work environment.

Acute care nursing (sometimes called critical care nursing)  plays a vital role in our healthcare system, providing fast treatment for urgent conditions impacting a patient’s quality of life. There are many diverse roles under the acute care umbrella, giving you plenty of flexibility regarding career choices.

So what exactly does the acute care nursing job description entail? In this post, we’ll go over typical job responsibilities for someone working in critical care. 


Where Do Acute Care Nurses Work? 

Before we dive into a detailed list of job responsibilities for acute care nurses, it’s essential to talk about where critical care nurses work.

Acute care involves caring for a patient with sudden-onset and potentially severe conditions. For example, you may work with patients experiencing illness, injury, or recovery from trauma or surgery. 

Acute care typically occurs in hospitals or specialized care facilities, and intensive care is often involved. In addition, critical care nurses are often needed in both inpatient and outpatient facilities. This specialty is often needed in the following facilities or settings:


What Does the Acute Care Nursing Job Description Entail? 

Acute care nursing plays an essential and highly involved role in our healthcare system. Critical care nurses work with critically ill and sometimes emergent patients. In addition, they can work with patients who are just getting diagnosed, patients in the end stages of their condition, and everyone in between.

Acute care nursing jobs typically involve the following responsibilities.

Assessing & Monitoring a Patient’s Status 

Monitoring and assessing the status of your patients is a crucial role for most critical care nurses. While supervising physicians check in with patients and move the diagnostic process along, the acute care nurse will closely monitor the patient. As a result, you’ll need to watch for any signs or symptoms that indicate changes in the patient’s condition.

If the doctor only checks in once per day and the nurse monitors the patient regularly, recognizing early signs of an emerging infection post-surgery could make the difference between prompt treatment and the patient developing serious complications like sepsis. 

As a result, most acute care nurses need robust medical knowledge and education about any emergent conditions their patients would likely experience. For most critical care nurses, this means knowing how to recognize or manage the following conditions:

  • Infections 
  • Wounds and injuries
  • Allergic reactions
  • Shock
  • Cardiac distress or arrest 
  • Respiratory distress or arrest 
  • Stroke 
  • Blood clots and embolisms 
  • Concerning reactions to commonly-used medications 

Taking the Patient’s Vitals 

Since you’re working with critically ill and recovering patients, you may be responsible for checking your patients’ vitals regularly. 

Many critical care nursing positions require that you document the following vitals: 

  • Heart rate
  • Blood oxygen level
  • Temperature 
  • Respiration rate
  • Blood pressure 

Critical care nurses may also need to conduct specialized tests during the patient’s intake, given their condition. For example, nurses can run an electrocardiogram (EKG) test if a patient has symptoms indicating a possible cardiac condition

Documenting Patient Information 

As a critical care nurse, you’ll be responsible for starting and maintaining the patient’s chart while working with them. 

The information you’ll document can include the following:

  • The patient’s medical history, including any known allergies or diagnosed conditions
  • Reported symptoms
  • Patient height and weight 
  • Patient vitals
  • Medications prescribed and administered
  • Interventions made by overseeing physicians 
  • Adverse reactions to any treatment 
  • Requests from the patient (it can be common for patients with PTSD from past sexual assaults to request female providers, for example)
  • Care instructions provided to the patient before discharge 

Administering Medication 

Critical care patients often need medication, even if that medication is just antibiotics and pain medication after a surgical procedure. 

You’ll need to be comfortable placing intravenous devices (IVs) and administering medications. Depending on their condition, you also may need to help patients take oral, topical, or suppository medications. 

If you have any questions, make sure that you ask. IV medications can be particularly tricky, as each has its own “push” rate that tells you how slowly you need to push the medication into the patient’s IV. Some medications must be pushed slowly to prevent adverse (and sometimes even dangerous or life-threatening) reactions. 

Patient Communication 

You’ll be the face that the patients and their families see the most, as you’ll be involved in their ongoing care. They’ll likely ask you questions, voice concerns or fears, or state their wishes. So, it’s a crucial part of your job to listen and help if you can.

If the patient tells you that they’re concerned because they don’t have a will, you don’t just want to commiserate. Many hospitals have internal resources for situations like this. You can request that someone helps the patient with a basic will or an advanced medical directive. 

Your communication and empathy skills can help reduce a patient’s stress, putting them at ease and potentially helping them recover faster. 

Helping with Patient Care 

Critically ill and recovering patients are likely to need more hands-on care. For example, someone who just had an appendectomy may need help getting dressed after the procedure.

It’s common for acute care patients to need help getting up or going to the bathroom, and you may need to help them shower. In addition, you may need to help them go for a walk around the room or down the hall.

Some facilities may have certified nursing assistants (CNAs) to help with some of these tasks, but some may have the nurses themselves take over here. 

Starting & Running Emergency Codes 

No one ever wants to run a code for any reason, but all critical care nurses need to know how to start and run a code until a supervising physician can get onto the scene. 

Each facility may have a different procedure for coding patients, so make sure you’re familiar with the process at each place of employment. And always, always make sure you know whether all of your patients on each shift have a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order.  

Managing Injuries & Wounds  

It’s common for critical care nurses in a variety of specialties to work regularly with patients who have injuries or wounds. 

For example, a nurse working in the emergency room will commonly see fractured and broken bones. Critical care nurses working in surgical facilities will also need to keep an eye on surgical sites to keep them clean and monitor them for signs of infection. Knowing how to care for patients with a variety of known or suspected injuries will be essential for your success in your career. 

Want to learn more about working as a critical care nurse? Check out our ultimate guide to acute care nursing here.

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