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ICU Nurse Certifications: What Are They and Do You Need Them?

Nurses are heavily depended on to help run any wing of a hospital. This is especially true for the intensive care unit where ICU nurses must be able to make critical decisions in split seconds. Because of the responsibility and challenges of critical care nursing, hospitals require certifications in order to ensure they’re hiring nurses of the highest quality. With ICU certifications, it ensures that the nurse is up to date on the latest educational information on nursing and medicine.

As for the nurse, spending time outside of working hours to study helps them master their craft in care for patients. Gaining an ICU certification makes them more hirable and better equipped for the difficult responsibilities that intensive care entails. This is reflected in the higher average salary for ICU nurses who are certified. For this reason, more nurses are turning toward certification to further their career trajectory. So, what are these ICU nurse certifications, and why do you need them for ICU nursing jobs

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American Association of Critical-Care Nurses

The AACN is an organization dedicated to helping nurses offer the best care available to their patients. This, in turn, helps their larger mission of creating a healthcare system where nurses can make the optimal impact on the lives of those who most need it. Founded in 1969, the AACN has grown their community to include over 100,000 nurses who are dedicated to helping patients. That makes this 501c nonprofit the largest specialty nursing organization.

AACN offers many different certification programs from telenursing to critical-care specialties. By standardizing the information necessary to succeed as a nurse, the organization is best able to match capable nurses with hospitals who need them.

Different Nurse Certifications

So, what are these different nurse certifications? Of the 15 certifications, there are four that constitute nursing in critical care conditions. Those specialties are as follows:

  • CCRN (Adult) – This is your traditional registered nurse specializing in critical care conditions. Nurses with this specialty can provide adequate care regardless of location. They are able to work in ICUs, cardiac care units, surgical ICUs, transport and flight operations, and other trauma units.
  • CCRN (Pediatric) – Similarly, CCRN for pediatrics specializes in critical care for youth. The ages that fall under pediatrics defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics are 11-21, split into three different age groups. Nurses generally care for one or all three age groups and can work in ICUs, transport and flight operations, and other trauma units as well.
  • CCRN (Neonatal) – For nursing related to newborn critical care. The “neonatal” period is within the first month of being born, but diseases can last longer than this period. Like the CCRN programs above, these nurses are certified to work in ICUs, transport and flight operations, and other trauma units. 
  • CMC (Adult) – CMC units are specifically for cardiac care in adults. These nurses are certified to work in home care, ICUs, heart failure clinics, electrophysiology units, and more. 

Initial Eligibility

Not everyone can take these certification exams. In fact, there are a few primary requirements in order to be eligible for the exam. These include the following. 

RN or APRN License

To obtain your registered nurse (RN) or advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) license, you need to graduate from a nursing program. These programs are usually between three to five years, depending on if you fast track your courses or not.

There is then a final examination known as the NCLEX (or National Council Licensure Examination) that determines whether you will receive your nursing license. The ICU certification is an extension of your nursing credential, so the credential is a prerequisite.

Licenses must be Unencumbered

To qualify as an unencumbered license, nurses must not have any current disciplinary measures on their record. If they are currently subjected to discipline by a hospital board or have any restrictions on their job, they may not be eligible to take the examination. All disciplinary measures should be consulted with the AACN examination handbook—the definitive booklet on certification.

Clinical Hours Minimum

There are two options to achieve the clinical hours minimum. One is over the course of two years, the other, five years.

  • Two-year plan – Over the two years prior to the examination, the RN or APRN must have 1,750 hours in direct care of critical condition patients. 875 of these must be in the preceding year to application.
  • Five-year plan – Over the last five years, the applying RN or APRN must have accrued at least 2,000 hours in direct care of critical condition patients. 144 hours must have been in the preceding year to application.

Clinical Hours must be Eligible

For the clinical hours to count, they must fit a few requirements. Those requirements are:

  • Hours must be completed in either a U.S. or Canada hospital or a facility with standards comparable to the U.S.
  • Hours must be verifiable by the supervisor.
  • Hours must be in the direct care of critically ill patients or at the bedside of patients within the category of certification. (E.g. pediatric patients for CCRN Pediatric or neonatal patients for CCRN Neonatal.)


How to Prepare

There are plenty of resources to prepare for the certification exams on AACN’s website. Some of these resources include practice questions, testing information, texts, and review courses. Because nursing hours are required within the year of application, it should be noted that most nurses will take this exam while working.

This combination of study and work is time-consuming. Be sure to prepare both work life and home life to have the time necessary to dedicate to both. Nurses often report having little free time outside of these activities. However, this is worth it for the benefits that come with certification.

Why Get Certified?

It is possible to work as an intensive care nurse without an ICU certification. So, why bother stressing over studying for a big exam? Well, there are two main reasons to get ICU certified.

More likely to be hired – Once you become an ICU nurse, you’ll notice that some hospitals require an ICU certification to work in the critical care unit and therefore, the chances of finding a suitable job increases. Also, having the certification makes you a stronger candidate when positions are limited.

Increased payAccording to a 2018 survey by Advance Healthcare, there is an average of 16% jump in pay when critical care nurses become certified. This increase in pay comes with more responsibility and a better understanding of medicine and nursing.

Are these the only two reasons to be ICU certified? Absolutely not. The extra time spent preparing and studying for the certification exam will only make you a better nurse. The additional knowledge will come in handy in times of crises, as sometimes nurses only have split seconds to make the correct life-saving decision for a patient. This should not be understated as ICU nursing is one of the more stressful specialties you can enter. The better prepared you can be with ICU nursing skills, the less stress on the job.

Certification Renewal

If you’ve already gotten your certification and you’re preparing for a renewal, there are two different methods to renew your ICU certification.

Renewal by Synergy CERPs

CERPs, or Continuing Education Recognition Points, are points that are put toward your certification renewal. CERPs are gained through various involvements within the field of medicine including research, leadership programs, and committee activities. 

CERP qualification

Nurses need at least 100 CERPs to qualify for the Synergy CERP renewal. These 100 CERPs must meet three different category minimums. Those categories are:

  • Category A – Clinical Judgment – 60 CERPs minimum
  • Category B – Moral Agency and Caring Practices – 10 CERPs minimum
  • Category C – Collaboration and Systems Thinking – 10 CERPs minimum

The other 20 CERPs can be in any category of your choice. The AACN provides a list of activities that garner points toward the renewal. For nurses wanting to go this route, do note that it takes some investigation and preparation to ensure you have the minimum points.

Renewal by Exam

This is the more straightforward route toward certification renewal. If you meet the renewal eligibility requirements and successfully take and pass the exam, then your certification will be renewed. For some, this route is easier because the only information they need to learn is what’s changed in the last three years. 

Eligibility for Renewal

The requirements are similar to those for the initial examination. They include the following:

  • Having a current RN or APRN license that is unencumbered.
  • Passing the exam prior to renewal.
  • 432 hours of direct patient practice within the three-year certification window.
  • 144 of those hours were in the year prior to renewal.
  • Hours are eligible if:
  • Completed in a facility comparable to U.S. standards of practice
  • Confirmed by supervisor
  • Majority of hours must be with critically ill patients


Alternate Options

If you don’t get the certification renewed or are ineligible for the renewal, there are three alternate status options to choose from. 

Inactive Status

Designating an inactive status allows nurses three additional years from their renewal date to meet the needed requirements. While inactive, the certification is marked invalid, but can always be renewed when the prerequisites are met. The three-year validation period begins once you renew your certificate.

Note: You are not able to use inactive status two times in a row. Once you reach three years of inactive status and you have not met the requirements, you’ll need to change the status to one of the other two.

Alumnus Status

This status is great for those who have established their reputation within the nursing field and don’t need to continually re-up their certification. With alumnus status, nurses can still place this on CVs, resumes, or below credentials on business cards without retaking an exam or using the CERPs system. 

Alumnus status can be renewed every three years for a fee of $75 for AACN members.

Retired Status

To have the retired status is more of a tribute to the years of service in critical care conditions than anything else. Retired status credentials can be great for further work in nursing outside of patient care. This includes teaching, management, or other hospital office work. 

To be eligible for this status, one cannot be working in any position that requires an RN license. The status is renewable once every 3 years for $45.

Travel Nursing

An additional benefit of ICU nurse certifications is how it looks when applying to be a travel nurse. Traveling nurses are nurses that fill gaps in hospitals where additional workers are needed. Because of the high demand for these nurses, they receive higher pay, housing stipends, and day-to-day expense stipends.

Having the ICU certification will make it easier to apply for these jobs and make you a more desired travel nurse candidate.

Certificate Verification

It is possible to verify any certificate granted by the AACN online. Many hospitals require certification to work in a high-intensity environment like the ICU, so this allows for employers to check if their nurses have received certification. 

Other Certifications Available

There are many nurse certifications available to help advance your career. These can be granted simultaneously with the ones mentioned earlier. 

This certification is a specialty that allows nurses to perform tele-based, bedside care for patients in critical care. This tele-ICU system accounts for audiovisual and electronic systems to aid in the care process from a remote location.

CCRN-K Certified

Unlike the regular CCRN certification, this status allows for any nursing position that does not work directly with critically ill patients. These are roles outside traditional nursing including management positions, directing positions, academia, or clinical educator. These are the necessary roles to continue adequate training for all nurses.

The CCRN-K certifications have similar specialties, including Adult, Neonatal, and Pediatrics.

CSC Certified

Nurses interested in Cardiac Surgery Care will often receive this certification. This is for those wanting to work in post-anesthesia, cardiovascular, or cardiothoracic surgery care units. Similar to a CMC certification, this will center primarily around cardio disease but will surround post-operative care.


ICU nurse certifications are great ways to both leapfrog your career and increase your pay. Certifications help hospitals and employers narrow in on criteria that will allow for the best hires. If you’re looking to be in that group, joining AACN membership and starting on your certification journey is the first step.

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