What Is a PACU Nurse? Overview and FAQ

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Written by Morganne Skinner, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
A nurse in teal scrubs answers the question: What is a PACU nurse?

Every single year, a whopping 310 million major surgeries are performed around the world. In the U.S., there are about 50 million surgeries per year — and who is there to care for patients after these surgeries? PACU nurses.

Just what is a PACU nurse, exactly? What does the PACU medical abbreviation mean? Where do they work? What do PACU nurses do? We’ll answer these questions and more in this article.

Overview: What Is the PACU?

The PACU medical abbreviation has a straightforward meaning – post anesthesia care unit (PACU). Transition is the main focus of the PACU, meaning that it is a recovery room for patients after surgery or procedures requiring anesthesia. This is a unit where patients are taken after the operating room, before returning home or going to their hospital unit.

What Does a PACU Nurse Do?

A PACU nurse is responsible for monitoring patients after a procedure or surgery and ensuring they wake up from anesthesia safely. They keep a close eye on a patient’s vital signs, level of consciousness, airway, and breathing patterns. Essentially, the PACU RN makes sure patients awaken from anesthesia okay.

These nurses are usually with patients from one to three hours in the PACU, meaning that they see a number of patients on a short-term basis. During this time, the nurse monitors the patient’s airway, breathing, and hemodynamic status closely.

If a patient has a complication from surgery or anesthesia, the PACU RN is there to intervene quickly. Many patients experience disorientation, fear, chills, and forgetfulness as anesthesia wears off. Nurses working in PACU help to reorient patients, alleviate fears and anxieties, and keep patients comfortable.

What Is a PACU Nurse’s Workday Like?

Depending on where the PACU nurse works, such as outpatient or in the OR, the exact duties may vary. If you plan on pursuing PACU nurse jobs, know that the unit is very busy and fast-paced. Examples of PACU nurse skills:

  • Administering pain medication
  • Assessing and monitoring patients’ level of consciousness (LOC)
  • Providing manual ventilation
  • Transporting post-operative patients to unit
  • Setting up their PACU pod with necessary equipment
  • Assessing surgical wounds

Curious about what other responsibilities may be expected of you? Review this sample PACU nurse job description template.

PACU Nursing FAQ

What Is a PACU Nurse vs. ICU Nurse?

An intensive care unit (ICU) nurse cares for a wide variety of critically ill patients who are unstable and require close monitoring. A PACU nurse cares for patients during their post-anesthesia period. Although both nurses are focused on maintaining patients’ hemodynamic stability, ICU nurses are more involved in all aspects of patient care, while PACU nurses are focused on post-anesthesia care.

What Is a PACU Nurse vs. OR Nurse?

An operating room (OR) nurse cares for patients before, during, and immediately after surgery. They manage all activities in the operating room and can serve as a circulating nurse or scrub nurse. PACU nurses are caring for patients after surgery, while they wake up from anesthesia.

How Long Does It Take to Become a PACU Nurse?

Before you can learn how to become a PACU nurse, you’ll first have to become an RN. This can take about two to four years depending on your degree path.

Next, you’ll need to gain experience working as a registered nurse. The exact amount of experience required varies, but in general, at least two years are needed. All in all, it takes four to six years before you’ll be ready to create your PACU nurse resume and start applying for jobs.

Are There PACU Nurse Certifications?

The American Board of Perianesthesia Nursing Certification (ABPANC) offers a PACU certification for registered nurses. The certified post-anesthesia nurse (CPAN) exam assesses RNs knowledge of perianesthesia nursing standards, evidence-based practice recommendations, and post-anesthesia nursing care.

While not a requirement, this certification can be a big plus. Having a nursing certification showcases your expertise and dedication to nursing excellence to your peers and employers.

Is Being a PACU Nurse Hard?

PACU nursing requires a great deal of critical thinking and decision making. You are constantly monitoring a patient’s blood pressure to determine if/when you need to give medication. You are monitoring and treating pain, while considering how pain medication will affect the patient’s vital signs and sedation.

As with all nursing specialties, you are considering a multitude of factors and anticipating needs and outcomes, planning and reprioritizing care accordingly. For those who prefer less acute care and more routine, outpatient PACU nursing jobs may be a great fit.

Is PACU Nursing a Good Job?

Working in the PACU is an excellent career choice. You can enjoy a flexible schedule, minimum weekend and evening hours, and a good work-life balance.

Everyone has different preferences and goals when it comes to seeking a nursing specialty. Here are some things to consider about working in the PACU:

  • Short patient stay: You won’t spend too much time with the same patients.
  • Fast provider response time: Generally speaking, anesthesia is close by and can respond quickly in emergencies.
  • Fast paced: You will be on your feet with busy days, anticipating orders and needed nursing interventions.
  • On call: Some PACU positions require you to work on call on weekends, with frequency depending on role and facility.
  • Limited nursing skills: You likely won’t be exposed to the wide variety of nursing skills in the PACU like you would on other units, such as a medical-surgical unit.

How Much Do PACU Nurses Make?

The average PACU nurse salary is $46 per hour or $96,100 per year. Your exact rate may vary depending on your degree, experience, location, and facility. To learn what you could earn as a registered nurse in this specialty, look at the latest PACU RN jobs on IntelyCare.

Ready for a Career in the PACU?

We’ve answered your question: What is a PACU nurse? Interested in pursuing a PACU nursing career? With IntelyCare, you can gain find the PACU job that fits you best. Get started with job updates from IntelyCare today.