How to Become a Cardiac Nurse
March 15, 2021
If you can handle literal heart-stopping moments, cardiac nursing might be the job for you. This job is open to registered nurses, with advancement opportunities for those who pursue nurse practitioner training.
You're concerned about cardiac health. You prove this daily by starting your morning with a big bowl of Cheerios (fiber!) followed by ten vigorous minutes on the elliptical. But what if your concern runs deeper than that? What if you want to build a career promoting cardiac wellness?
Consider becoming a cardiac nurse. Cardiac nurses (sometimes called cardiovascular nurses) work on patients with medical conditions like:
- Cardiac arrhythmia
- Congenital heart defects
- Coronary blockage
- Heart murmur
- Heart tumors
According to University of Florida Health, the responsibilities of a cardiac nurse include:
- Education for patients and families
- Life support skills
- Pain management
- Post-op care
Nurses may not always receive the same praise doctors enjoy. Even so, they play an invaluable role in healing—from patient intake to recovery.
In this article on how to become a cardiac nurse, we will cover:
- What education do you need to be a cardiac nurse?
- How to specialize in cardiac nursing
- What are the best certifications for cardiac nursing?
- Graduate programs for cardiac nursing
- Career outlook for cardiac nurses
What education do you need to be a cardiac nurse?
The education requirements for becoming a cardiac nurse are much the same as for any other nursing specialty, at least at the outset of your nursing career. The first step is to become a registered nurse (RN). This means earning either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited institution and then passing the NCLEX-RN licensing exam, which tests basic competency. Note that each state has individual requirements for licensing and renewal.
It generally takes two years to complete an associate's degree, while a bachelor's degree usually takes four; most employers prefer to hire candidates with a BSN. In fact, there's significant momentum in the nursing profession to require the BSN as the entry-level degree for nursing, meaning that it may not be long before you'll need a bachelor's degree to find a job. Even in the best-case scenario, more of the nurses you'll compete with for jobs will have the BSN, giving them a competitive advantage. In short: seriously consider pursuing the BSN.
If you already have an ADN, you should consider upgrading to a BSN (or even an MSN) through an RN to BSN program or an RN to MSN program.
Whichever degree you end up earning must be awarded by a program accredited by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), or Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).
Where should you earn your degree?
There are no specialized cardiology nursing programs for undergraduate students, so it is best to complete your degree at an institution that best fits your financial situation and schedule. This might mean attending a local college or university. Fortunately, state schools typically offer excellent nursing programs. For example, CUNY Hunter College has an esteemed nursing program and (relatively) low tuition (for 2019-20, a full-time BSN candidate paid $3,465 per semester).
You can earn your BSN online, although the online component usually only covers courses required by your nursing major. These programs are, essentially, RN to BSN programs; top universities offering this option include University of Florida - Online and Pennsylvania State University - World Campus. There are also a few schools with hybrid programs, such as The University of Texas at Arlington, which allow for more flexibility.
Whatever school you attend will include core courses in both hard sciences—such as biology and chemistry—and humanities—such as English and theology. According to the AACN, the education requirements for all nursing students include:
- Liberal arts education
- Communication and collaboration
- Understanding of healthcare policy
- Patient safety
- Information management
- Professional values
- Disease prevention for both individuals and populations
How to specialize in cardiac nursing
Once you have graduated from an accredited program and passed the NCLEX-RN exam, you can pursue a career in cardiac nursing. This usually means getting experience as an RN and then earning a specialized certification in cardiac medicine.
The American Nurse Credentialing Center offers Cardiac/Vascular Nurse Certification to RNs who meet the following criteria:
- Hold a current active RN license in a state or territory of the United States or hold the professional, legally recognized equivalent in another country
- Have practiced the equivalent of two years full-time as a registered nurse
- Have a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical practice in cardiac-vascular nursing within the last three years
- Have completed 30 hours of continuing education in cardiac-vascular nursing within the last three years
After earning this credential, you will be a Registered Nurse-Board Certified (RN-BC) in cardiovascular nursing, which is the most basic license in the field. The certification lasts for five years and can be renewed online.
In order to meet the clinical practice hour requirements, it is best to find a job in an:
- Emergency room (ER)
- Intensive care unit (ICU)
- Critical care unit (CCU)
- Catheterization laboratory (cath lab)
- Cardiac care unit (CCU)
What are the best certifications for cardiac nursing?
Depending on your desired employer's requirements, you might not be able to move into cardiac nursing immediately. Some may want to see general nursing experience, certification, or even a graduate diploma.
Moving from a separate specialty is another option. For instance, some intensive care or critical-care nurses might want to transition specifically into cardiovascular health at some point in their careers.
Earning certifications can help you advance your career as a cardiac nurse, especially for newer RNs. The most important certification is the Cardiac/Vascular Nurse Certification described above. In addition, the American Heart Association offers:
These courses are designed specifically for healthcare professionals and are often required by employers. Outside earning a master's degree, experience and certifications are two significant factors for cardiovascular nurses trying to advance their careers.
Graduate programs for cardiac nursing
Attending a graduate program allows nurses to specialize and gives them an opportunity to earn a lot more money. Earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree prepares graduates to become nurse practitioners (NP), which involves more responsibility and a larger paycheck. Duke University offers an eight-credit cardiology specialty as part of their MSN program. Students complete "168 clinical hours in cardiovascular settings" and graduate as cardiovascular NPs.
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette offers a cardiovascular certificate program designed for current NPs who are "enrolled in or have completed a Master of Science in Nursing or Doctorate in Nursing program and possess licensure and certification as a nurse practitioner in the roles of FNP, adult/gerontology NP, or acute care NP population foci."
Earning a Doctorate of Nursing Practice is another way to specialize. DNP programs prepare nurses for leadership roles. It is a terminal nursing degree.
Instead of focusing entirely on cardiac nursing, DNP programs will generally allow students to explore the subject during a final project. The University of Tulsa and Vanderbilt University both showcase graduates who have made contributions to the field of cardiac nursing.
Career outlook for cardiac nurses
On the whole, the nursing profession promises a rapidly increasing job market, which means fairly high job security. Specializing in an area of nursing (i.e. cardiac) usually means increased:
- Job satisfaction
- Career opportunities
Nursing salaries vary based on education level and employer. For instance, cardiac RNs earn an average of around $63,000 per year, while cardiac NPs earn an average of close to $107,000 per year. Of course, not everybody is cut out to be an NP, which takes upwards of two years of additional schooling and can cost more than $80,000 per year.
Carving out a cardiac nursing niche
There are numerous careers in cardiac nursing. For instance, those who work in a pediatric intensive-care unit (PICU) at a children's hospital will see different patients than nurses employed in a general hospital's ICU, even though the requirements and skills needed for each are similar. Similarly, nurse practitioners will take on more responsibility than regular RNs, especially in the areas of primary care and patient education. Even if they are in the same unit, the two jobs vary significantly.
Additionally, it's not just cardiovascular nurses that get to work with the heart. Telemetry nurses frequently interact with heart patients, and are usually the ones in charge of monitoring vital signs.
Why you should become a cardiac nurse
Cardiac nursing is a high-stress job that requires quick medical reflexes—like most nursing jobs. An excellent cardiac nurse must be able to face the harsh reality that not every patient can be saved and move on to the next case.
If you're up to the challenge and can handle the predictable jokes—you will want to slap the fiftieth patient who sees you and says "Be still, my beating heart" (but, hopefully, you won't)— cardiac nursing offers excellent opportunities to help others and earn a good living in the process. If this sounds appealing, you aorta look into this career option.
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