Say “trauma nurse” and everyone seems to start thinking about classic pop culture hospital references and dreamy doctors working in the emergency room. The reality is that any individual who thrives in stressful situations loves a fast-paced challenge, and is dedicated to using their skills to help others can find profound satisfaction in a career as a trauma nurse.
Below we detail the responsibilities of a trauma nurse practitioner, the education and trauma nurse certification needed to get there, and what options are available to keep growing in this exciting career path.
A trauma nurse is on the front line of treating patients with acute injuries or illness. Stationed in the emergency room, they’re the main hospital personnel directly working to stabilize patients. That said, trauma nurses work together with several other medical professionals to coordinate diagnosis and treatment, as well as to handle any emergencies or escalations that should arise under their watch.
A trauma nurse can be confused with an emergency nurse, but they serve different functions. While an emergency room nurse can really refer to any nurse stationed in the ER, a trauma nurse is specifically assigned to critical care patients, often acting as the first responders within the emergency room itself to stabilize incoming patients.
A trauma nurse works to stabilize patients who have just arrived to the emergency room in critical condition, whether from a violent injury, sudden illness, or other severe medical event. Their responsibilities include:
When a patient is brought to an emergency room in critical condition, the most important thing for medical staff to do is to intervene as quickly as possible. Time is of the essence and could make all the difference in a patient’s outcome. Someone needs to be on-hand to act fast and effectively to treat the patient—this someone is the trauma nurse.
From administering emergency medical procedures to monitoring a patient’s vitals as they fight to stay alive, the high attentiveness and quick action of a trauma nurse are often what helps a patient’s condition stabilize. With all of the experience they have, trauma nurses can reliably triage patients so that they are treated effectively within the emergency room.
A trauma nurse should be able to think clearly and act swiftly even under the highest pressure; in fact, they should thrive under stress. They should have strong observational skills so that they can capture the nuances of their patients’ symptoms even if their patients can’t articulate them, and they should be able to communicate clearly and succinctly.
The first step to becoming a trauma nurse is to earn the registered nurse (RN) title by completing a degree program (associate’s or bachelor’s) from an accredited school, which must include clinical hours. Your course work will include the usual physiology and anatomy common to all healthcare career learning, but it will also contain courses in nursing skills, nursing theories, and nursing administration. Regardless of the specialty you choose, leadership will always be an option. At the end of this coursework, you will need to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to gain your official license as a nurse.
Once you’re a nurse, you can earn the trauma nurse designation by completing a Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing (BCEN) certification. There are several nationally recognized trauma programs that can help you get there, including the Trauma Nurse Core Curriculum (TNCC), BTLS (Basic Trauma Life Support), and PHTLS (Pre-hospital Trauma Life Support). To be a trauma nurse, you’ll need to become a Trauma Certified Registered Nurse (TCRN), although other specializations also exist including pediatric and transport. This certification will require a certain number of clinical hours that may vary according to your state and institution.
Most programs also require proof of certification in Basic Cardiac Life Support (BCLS), Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS), Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS), and a Neonatal Resuscitation Program (NRP). This will give you the needed basics to handle most acute, life-threatening injuries, or at least work to stabilize the patient until further medical attention can be obtained from a doctor.
Even once you become a registered trauma nurse, keep an eye out for continuing education (CE) opportunities to expand your skill set and potentially grow your career.
Trauma nurses have several specialties available to them based on their interests and a certification process; however, all of these leverage the nurse’s ability to remain cool under pressure and to work collaboratively and swiftly. Expect to work in a hospital setting—specifically, the emergency room—where you’ll effectively be the first responder in-house. You’ll be receiving patients at all hours of the day and night in the most high-risk and high-stress environment, sometimes with limited context, and all need to be stabilized by you first thing.
As a trauma nurse, you might be stationed in the intensive care unit (ICU), the trauma team, or the OR/step-down units—basically anywhere that patients in relatively unstable health may be found.
As with any nursing career, there is always room to grow into a leadership or hospital administrative role, as well as into a track as a professor or other educator.
Over the next ten years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is expecting a “much faster than average” growth of registered nursing jobs at about 12%, which bodes well across all nursing specialties. Part of this growth is attributed to a maturing senior population. Though the average human lifespan is lengthening, this elderly group is still prone to accidents and emergency medical incidents like heart attacks, particularly given the prevalence of chronic conditions like obesity and diabetes.
How much does a trauma nurse make? The average trauma nurse has a median hourly pay of $29.34, though the general range is between $23 and $41 per hour. To boost salary pay trauma nurses can advance their status to senior, faculty, and/or administrative positions since leadership in all its forms and additional responsibilities will translate into a higher wage. Doing so might also allow more control over hours worked which can prove important for any nurse, particularly those who are starting a family or have other responsibilities or limited availability outside of work.
The highest paying states for this specialty are:
While the available salary data can vary based on a number of factors including your geography, there are a couple of specialties to consider on your path as a trauma nurse.
Becoming a certified flight or transport registered nurse via the Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing (BCEN) can grant you more opportunities to intervene as a trauma nurse in different situations, including in a real-life first responder sense. This helps you apply all of your trauma nurse training directly on-site as well as on the way to the full emergency room facility. Intervening faster could be the factor that makes the difference for your patients.
Obtaining pediatric certification via the Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing (BCEN) will show you not just the skills needed to manage injuries or illness in children, but will also help you minimize any post-traumatic stress. Kids often need extra attention or time to help comfort them and help them understand what happened and what is going on, especially if their parents/guardians aren’t present yet (depending on where and when the injury or illness arose). This could mean that there’s a higher number of nurses needed for pediatric trauma.
1. What’s the difference between a trauma nurse and an emergency room nurse?
A trauma nurse is focused on working with patients whose condition is unstable since they’ve had extensive additional training in managing physical and mental trauma. They’re practically the first responders in the emergency room and are often called in to handle the direst and most challenging cases. Emergency room nurses, on the other hand, comprise a broader category of nurses who work in the emergency room and provide critical services, but to patients whose conditions are less life-threatening.
2. How can I learn more about best practices, continuing education, and other opportunities?
Each society and specialty has its own publications that you can read or conferences where you can connect with others. These groups exist both on the national and state levels, so it’s worth checking them out.
3. There are so many different certifications available that I don’t even know where to begin. What should I do?
Becoming a registered nurse is always the first step to becoming a trauma nurse. From there, speaking with your institution about what they specifically require in order for you to work as a trauma nurse is the best way to make sure you are compliant with local and institutional requirements.
For more information on certifications, requirements, or like-minded communities of trauma nursing professionals, please consult the following groups:
For anyone passionate about nursing and able to thrive under pressure, this career can be extremely rewarding. If you have any questions about any aspect of this career path or of becoming a nurse, please contact us.