Understanding the Role and Responsibilities of a PACU Nurse

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By Host Healthcare

November 3, 2021



In-Depth Insight: Understanding the Role and Responsibilities of a PACU Nurse

This article was provided by Host Healthcare.

Looking to switch careers or plan a nursing specialty and wondering which unit is better? If your talents include a great deal of empathy and an eagle-eyed level of detail and focus, then PACU nursing might be a great fit for you. 

PACU, or post-anesthesia care unit, nursing is a unique position that requires close monitoring and care of critical patients who have just completed surgery or other procedures involving anesthesia. 

Also known as recovery or perianesthesia nurses, PACU nurses must observe patients during critical stages of care, assist patients during the physical and emotional recovery process, and communicate with surgeons or doctors if medical intervention is needed. 

What Do PACU Nurses Do?

The responsibilities of a PACU nurse can differ from day to day depending on patient intake and surgery schedules. However, most often the daily duties of a PACU nurse include: 

  • Being assigned to 1 to 2 patients at a time
  • Monitoring patients’ vital signs (blood pressure, temperature, pulse rate)
  • Changing dressings or bandages
  • Administering antibiotics, pain treatment, or other medications
  • Helping patients understand where they are and what is occurring
  • Communicating progress and patient needs to the family and care team 

For patients, recovering from anesthesia, the process often involves fluctuating emotions and confusion in addition to feelings of pain and nausea. Patients may not recall what is happening or why they are in the hospital. 

As the anesthesia wears off, they may begin to experience the pain of the surgery or procedure they’ve just undergone, and panic at not knowing why they’re hurting or being able to communicate it clearly. 

An effective PACU nurse can stay calm and understanding under these circumstances to communicate with patients and make them feel comfortable, even when patients are experiencing intense mood swings or not responding to logic.

What Are Traits Successful PACU Nurses?

Oftentimes PACU nurses must have a preference for variety and be effective communicators. Additionally, to work as a PACU RN, you need: 

  • Advanced clinical skills – This includes Basic Life Support (BLS) and Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) certification. 
  • Detail orientation and organizational skills – PACU nurses must facilitate close monitoring of patient vitals and adhere to delicately timed medication and recovery plans.
  • Empathy and compassion – One of the most important roles of a PACU nurse is to understand patient needs when they are unable to communicate effectively, help patients stay calm following procedures, and connect with family members to inform them of their loved one’s progress.
  • Critical thinking and decision-making – Nurses must respond to changes in their patient’s health and administer variable treatment for patients with a limited ability to communicate. As such, PACU nurses must be able to troubleshoot and problem solve at the drop of a hat.

How Do You Become a PACU Nurse?

PACU nursing is a specialty open to registered nurses (RNs). To become a PACU nurse, you must complete: 

  • Associates’ or Bachelor’s Degree – Completing studies for an Associates’ degree in nursing or a Bachelor’s degree  is needed to be a PACU nurse. When embarking on becoming a PACU nurse, select a perianesthesia concentration or opt for courses in anesthesia-related care, if available.
  • RN exam – Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN).
  • RN licensing – Meet state licensure requirements to become an RN.
  • RN experience – Gain general experience working as a registered nurse.

While a licensed RN with post-anesthesia care education is qualified to apply for PACU positions, most RNs have broader job experience prior to PACU nursing. Along with critical care nursing, you can increase your wages and the likelihood of being hired with certification courses. 

This involves applying with the American Board of Perianesthesia Nursing Certification after completing a minimum of 1,800 hours of relevant experience for either a: 

  • Certified Post Anesthesia Nurse (CPAN) 
  • Certified Ambulatory Perianesthesia Nurse (CAPA) 

Your certification must be renewed every three years. This involves either retaking the exam or completing a combination of activities such as continuing education, teaching, authorship, and leadership.

Do PACU Nurses Make More Money?

So, why PACU nursing? Specialization pays off! The national average salary for current PACU RN job openings is $92,397, compared to a $70,335 average for RNs.

Plus, there are additional factors that can increase your income as a PACU nurse, including: 

  • Travel nursing – PACU nurses earn $124,195 per year on average in the U.S. based on current travel PACU nurse job openings.
  • Location – As with most careers, earnings fluctuate based on both state and county. Currently, the highest wages for PACU nursing are found in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
  • Education – While the percentage of PACU RNs with associate and bachelor degrees is fairly similar, the average wage for those with BSNs is $8,712 higher than those with ADNs.

Nursing is a reliable career path with 7% projected growth from 2019 to 2029. Additionally, the need for PACU RNs with specialized experience will remain in high demand.

Are You Ready to Become a PACU Nurse?

PACU nursing requires compassion, advanced nursing expertise, and great communication skills to care for patients at their most vulnerable. While the day-to-day responsibilities of a PACU nurse are intricate, the rewards can be high—PACU nursing opens the door to honing your skills as a caretaker and provides you with an opportunity to fully engage in a vital patient care role.

If you’re looking for an opportunity to provide care and see the country, while also finding the best-paying jobs to increase your earnings, take a look at the travel PACU nurse jobs available through Host Healthcare, our partner here at Gypsy Nurse. 

As the top-ranked travel nursing agency in the country, Host Healthcare takes a personalized approach to partner travelers with best-match locations and positions. Visit their website or talk to a recruiter today at (844) 812-6757. 

If you are a new travel nurse or looking into becoming a travel nurse:

Travel Nurse Guide: Step-by-Step (now offered in a PDF Downloadable version!)


“FAQ – CPAN® and CAPA® Recertification.” ABPANC, 2 Mar. 2021, https://www.cpancapa.org/recertify/faq/

“$75k-$119K Pacu RN Jobs (Now Hiring) | ZipRecruiter.” ZipRecruiter, https://www.ziprecruiter.com/Jobs/PACU-RN

“Registered Nurse in Pacu Demographics and Statistics [2021]: Number of Registered Nurse in Pacus in the US.” Registered Nurse In Pacu Demographics and Statistics [2021]: Number Of Registered Nurse In Pacus In The US, 9 Sept. 2021, https://www.zippia.com/registered-nurse-in-pacu-jobs/demographics/

“Registered Nurses : Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8 Sept. 2021, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm

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