What Is a PACU Nurse? Everything You Need to Know


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A PACU nurse, or Post Anesthesia Care Unit nurse, is a registered nurse who specializes in caring for patients who have just received anesthesia for a procedure. This job requires a higher level of training and certification than other RN positions.

PACU nurses typically work in hospitals, surgical centers, or other healthcare facilities. They may also work in home healthcare settings. The hours of work can vary depending on the facility, but most PACU nurses work full-time.

As a PACU nurse, you’re responsible for monitoring the patient’s vital signs and evaluating the patient’s physical and mental status. You’ll also provide comfort and support to the patient during the recovery process. You’ll work in collaboration with the anesthesia team, the surgeon, and other healthcare professionals to ensure the patient’s safety and successful recovery.

A PACU nurse must be able to recognize the signs of complications and take appropriate action immediately. Sure, this applies to most nurses, but for PACU nurses, there’s an extra layer — anesthesia medications affect everyone differently, and some patients have reactions or complications that can be deadly if not treated appropriately and immediately.

If you’re interested in being a PACU nurse, being able to handle this unique kind of stress is critical. You also need to be able to work with patients who are essentially “out of it,” which means they can say and do some unexpected things — you have to be ready for everything.

Qualifications for Becoming a PACU Nurse

To become a PACU nurse, you must first become a registered nurse. You’ll need to complete a nursing program (usually a BSN, though in some cases an ASN might be acceptable) and obtain a license to practice (which requires passing the NCLEX).

Once you have your license, you will need to get a lot of experience — 1200 hours of direct clinical experience during the two years prior to applying for certification — before you can even think about becoming a PACU nurse.

The 1200 hours part is a little less strict than it sounds. When they say, “direct clinical experience,” they don’t mean you have to actually be a staff nurse in a PACU unit.

According to the American Board of Perianesthesia Nursing Certification (ABPANC), “You do not need to be technically employed in a direct care position. If your role (e.g., educator, manager, Clinical Nurse Specialist) involves bedside interaction with the patient and/or family in some capacity, those hours count toward meeting the experience requirement.”

What matters is that those hours involve bedside interaction for patients who are in “Postanesthesia Phase 1,” which means the time period between the handoff from the anesthesia care team to “full recovery from anesthesia and the return of vital signs to baseline.”

Once you’ve completed your hours, you have to get certified in post-anesthesia care, which you do through ABPANC. PACU nurses will want the Certified Post Anesthesia Nurse (CPAN) certification.

The certification exam is definitely difficult, so you’ll want to spend a lot of time studying. The test takes 3 hours and has 185 multiple-choice questions. You have to get 450 or higher to pass.

As of 2022, the pass rate was 57%.

This certification is valid for two years and must be renewed every 3 years.

The Benefits of Being a PACU Nurse

Being a PACU nurse, like any nursing job, has plenty of benefits that are unique to the type of care you’re providing. The job provides a great deal of satisfaction because you’re helping patients during a vulnerable time in their recovery.

If you’ve ever had to go under anesthesia yourself, you know that it’s a very strange experience. You can feel very confused and disoriented as you’re coming out, not knowing where you are, why you’re there, or what’s going on.

Patients can become extremely emotional, and even volatile, and need someone who is patient, kind, and reliable to help them feel like everything is going to be okay. When you guide someone through that, it can be extremely rewarding.

Many patients won’t even remember you, but that doesn’t make your job any less necessary — without you, they can end up having an extremely bad experience.

And of course, PACU nurses have excellent job security and competitive salaries, which certainly doesn’t hurt. The average salary of a PACU nurse is around $87,000 a year.

This figure can vary depending on experience, location, and other factors — for example, PACU nurses in California make $127,000 a year, which makes sense given the much higher cost of living there.

The job outlook for PACU nurses is also really great. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for registered nurses is projected to grow 15% from 2019 to 2029, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

This growth is largely due to the aging population and the increasing demand for healthcare services.

How to Find a Job as a PACU Nurse

Finding a job as a PACU nurse in today’s market is much easier than you think. It’s very much a job-seeker’s market today, which means, if you have the experience and the education/certification, you won’t struggle to find a job.

However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have work to do here. There are a few steps you can take to increase your chances of landing a job.

The first step is to create a strong resume and cover letter. These documents should include your educational background, work experience, and certifications.

You should also research employers and apply directly through their website — that tends to be more effective than using LinkedIn or other job boards.

You can also attend job fairs and network with other healthcare professionals.

Ultimately, working as a PACU nurse is a rewarding career that pays well — and if you become a travel PACU nurse, the pay becomes even higher.

Interested in Working as a Travel Nurse?

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