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The Heart of Cardiac Care

January 2012

Cardiac care nurses work with patients who suffer from both acute and chronic heart conditions, including heart disease. Although cardiac care nurses treat patients of all ages, the most common are older adults who suffer from common cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure, coronary heart disease or stroke. Instrumental to the prevention and treatment of these cardiovascular diseases are early intervention, diagnosis, care management and education, and these are often the primary responsibilities of a cardiac care nurse.

Nurses in the specialty of cardiac care work in a wide variety of roles and settings. The majority of cardiac care nurses work in a hospital setting, including cardiac care, critical care and intensive care units. They may also assist patients in outpatient rehabilitation facilities, private practice clinics, nursing homes and clinical research facilities. They treat patients who have life-threatening cardiovascular diseases or have undergone bypass, angioplasty or pacemaker surgery. There are also various sub-specialties within the cardiac care field itself, including geriatrics, pediatrics or post-surgical care.

"There is a breadth of opportunity in this specialty, but no matter which path a cardiac care nurse chooses, it is vital to understand how to help an individual adhere to a healthy lifestyle and have the skill sets to do so," said Elizabeth Bridges, PhD, RN, CCNS, FCCM, FAAN, associate professor of Biobehavioral Nursing and Health Systems at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash. Bridges serves on the editorial board of the American Journal of Critical Care and was co-editor of "Cardiac Nursing," sixth edition, which is recognized as the "Red Reference Book" for nurses caring for patients who have, or are at risk for developing, cardiac diseases.

Cardiac care nursing requires nurses to have a specialized skill set in advanced cardiac life support. Although nurses in this specialty perform routine procedures, such as monitoring their patients and administering medications, cardiac care nurses are also required to respond to immediate cardiac emergencies and assist the physician with procedures. Additional responsibilities may include using a defibrillator or inserting intravenous (IV) lines.

"Helping patients to treat and manage heart conditions is a complex process, and cardiac care nurses must really be experts in what they do. Constantly asking why and how are the key ingredients to making a difference for a patient," said Bridges.

Advanced communication abilities are fundamental to the role of the cardiac care nurse, as nurses in this field serve as educators to patients and their families. They frequently communicate with patients about heart disease management and address lifestyle changes needed for treatment. Due to the hereditary nature of cardiovascular diseases, it is also important for family members of patients currently suffering from heart conditions to learn necessary steps for cardiac disease prevention.

"Nurses in cardiac care have a unique opportunity to educate families, specifically younger generations, on targeted prevention," said Erika Froelicher, RN, PhD, professor in the Department of Physiological Nursing at the University of California School of Nursing in San Francisco, Calif. As a co-editor of the "Cardiac Nursing" reference book, Froelicher recognizes the need for evidence-based care and cardiac health promotion. "Cardiac care nurses need appropriate education, counseling and behavioral skill building to be able to identify what leads to a patient's heart disease or condition, and identify how future health risks can be prevented."

The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers certification for nurses who are interested in specializing in cardiac care. Prior to certification testing, cardiac care nursing candidates must complete at least two years of practice as a RN, and have a minimum of 2,000 hours in cardiac care nursing and 30 hours of continuing education.

For more information about the specialty, visit

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