The Growing Need for PACU Nurses in 2021
By Debra Wood, RN, contributor
With hospitals and surgery centers returning to a more normal surgical schedule in the first half of 2021, the need for post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) nurses has increased, including PACU travel nurses.
PACU registered nurses care for patients immediately after surgery or another procedure requiring general, local or regional anesthesia.
“I’ve always felt that the specialty of perianesthesia nursing is simply the best,” said Jennifer Kilgore, president of the American Society of PeriAnesthesia Nurses. “It’s also often the best kept secret in healthcare institutions.”
Although the decline of the COVID-19 pandemic may have created the current increase in surgical cases, the country’s aging population is expected to require more surgeries and post-anesthesia care in the months and years ahead.
Find hundreds of PACU travel nursing jobs across the U.S.
Post-anesthesia care nurses require strong clinical skills
Caring for patients as they transition from anesthesia and surgery to consciousness requires nurses with strong clinical skills, to monitor and manage the patient’s hemodynamic status, pain level and return to baseline vital signs. The nurse must assess for possible complications, including a compromised airway, medication side effects or delirium.
PACU nurses must be familiar with the medications given during surgery and their side effects. They also must be comfortable caring for patients with a wide variety of diagnoses. Strong assessment skills enable PACU nurses to pick up changes quickly and call in anesthesia professionals when needed.
Cases and patients differ and require astute nurses with strong critical thinking skills. PACU nurses may care for more than one patient at the same time. They coordinate with the anesthesia team and nurses at the receiving unit. Some organizations use checklists to help with communication.
PACU travel nurses also should possess strong people skills. They are, typically, the first person a recovering patient sees and interacts with post-op. If the patient is heading home, the PACU nurse must communicate any post-operative directions.
Nurses often are able to transfer to the PACU after experience on other units in the same health system. Critical care experience is helpful.
Certified post-anesthesia nursing (CPAN) and certified ambulatory perianesthesia nurse (CAPA) credentials from the American Board of Perianesthesia Certification indicate the nurse has PACU expertise and experience. About 12,800 nurses in the United States currently hold the certification.
More post-anesthesia care needed outside the OR
A growing trend in post-anesthesia care is the administration of anesthesia outside of the operating room in interventional radiology or cardiology labs, endoscopy or bronchoscopy suites or in other settings. Maureen F. McLaughlin, MS, RN, ACNS-BC, CPAN, CAPA, reported at the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses 2021 National Teaching Institute that as much as 40 percent of anesthesia is currently delivered outside of the operating room.
“Procedural advances have moved anesthesia out of the operating room,” McLaughlin said. However, “minimally invasive procedures do not mean less risk by any means.”
Becoming a PACU travel nurse
The increase in the number of surgeries being performed has led to a rise in PACU jobs, and hundreds of travel positions are currently available. Hospitals and surgical centers across the country are bringing on PACU travel nurses to ensure the proper post-anesthesia care for their patients.
Travel nursing provides opportunities to see the country, make new friends and expand a PACU travel nurse’s knowledge and resume. Jumping into a shift at a new facility requires confidence and flexibility.
Pay rates vary by institution and location, but PACU travel nurses can earn more than $2,400 per week, including reimbursements for housing and travel expenses.
Most facilities want PACU travel nurses to have 1-2 years of experience as a minimum, often in a critical care environment, and basic or advanced life support credentials. Some prefer a nurse with travel experience for their PACU assignments.
Travel nursing agencies will help PACU travelers secure a nursing license in the state where an upcoming assignment will take place.
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