How to Become a Trauma Nurse
Trauma nursing is one of the most intense, fast-paced professions in healthcare. These fearless nurses care for patients with life-threatening injuries from work accidents, physical violence, burns, and crashes, just to name a few. You’ll need confidence, poise under pressure, an entry-level nursing degree, and your nursing license to get started at a job in a trauma center or hospital.
According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), traumatic injuries are the leading cause of death for patients up to 44 years of age. Every three minutes, a patient dies of injuries related to accidents or violent crime, for a total of 480 deaths each day. Expressed another way, in 2021 there were 97.9 million emergency room visits for unintentional injuries.
If you thrive in crisis situations, excel at task management and communication, and enjoy working with diverse patient populations, this specialty might appeal to you. Want to learn more? We’ve got you covered, from details about the education you’ll need to the salary you can expect.
On the Job: Are You Ready to Save Lives?
Trauma nurses work with medical staff, including emergency service crews and trauma surgeons, to stabilize patients suffering from acute injuries. There’s a lot on the line, and these nurses must think and act fast while working as part of a team. At a moment’s notice, you’ll need to be prepared to:
The Society of Trauma Nurses (STN), one of the leading associations for this field, adds in its mission statement materials: “Since nurses are at the bedside 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, they are responsible for monitoring the trauma patient, assessing the patient for evolving injuries, actively performing procedures, assessing and relieving pain, teaching and comforting patients and their families.”
There’s a lot on the line for trauma patients, and their nurses must think and act fast.
Since you’ll see patients in life-or-death situations in this line of work, you’ll need to maintain a calm demeanor in high-stress environments. And you’ll need to be able to think on your feet to provide advanced life support for patients who may not have easily identifiable injuries or conditions.
As part of a first response medical team, you’ll help patients from all walks of life with serious injuries from:
As a trauma nurse, you’ll be qualified to work in a variety of clinical settings, including:
Part Nurse, Part Public Educator
The STN emphasizes the role of trauma nurses in promoting public health. They often educate groups about how to prevent injuries and the importance of wearing seatbelts and not texting while driving. You’ll work with children, teen drivers, and the elderly, groups most prone to accidents and injuries.
What’s the difference between an ER nurse and a trauma nurse?
ER nurses work with seriously ill patients in an emergency department.
Trauma nurses work with critically injured patients in a trauma center or emergency department.
Plan on Spending 2-4 Years on Education and Training
You’ll need to complete an accredited, entry-level nursing program to become a registered nurse (RN), which is the degree you need to work as a trauma nurse. You’ll have three options to earn your education:
- A two-year associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) program
- A three-year hospital-based nursing diploma program (hands-on training alongside classes that allows you to start working quickly, but likely tethers you to work at the hospital for a predetermined amount of time. Plus, credits from such a program might not be transferable to an ADN or BSN program).
- A four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) program
Depending on which path you take, it can take anywhere from two to four years to complete your education. No matter which program you choose, you’ll learn the basics of nursing in classes like these:
While you’ll be qualified to work as an RN with a degree from any accredited program, having a BSN can be an advantage. The degree is becoming an industry standard, and some employers have started to require it.
It can take anywhere from two to four years to complete your education.
Four-year university programs also offer advantages. You’ll have the chance to get hands-on clinical experience in various specialties during rotations, giving you a taste of what it would be like to work in emergency medical, flight and transport, surgical and critical care. Experience like this could be pivotal in helping you decide if you want to pursue trauma nursing.
Nursing degrees require hands-on clinical training in hospitals or other medical settings, so you can’t take all of your classes online. However, for classes that don’t require training, you might be able to learn online instead of in the classroom. If that’s an important option for you, research the schools you’re interested in to see what they offer.
Tests and Licensing
After completing your degree, you’ll need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). This standardized test covers all aspects of nursing practice and theory. Once you pass the NCLEX-RN, you’ll be ready to apply for an RN license in your state. You’ll need to provide proof of your education and your NCLEX-RN scores. Depending on your state, you might also need to undergo a background check and have CPR certification or reference letters before taking your test or working. Take a look at our state-by-state licensing guide to see your requirements.
With your RN license in hand, you can apply for trauma nursing positions. If you decide to dedicate your career to this field and are looking to advance, certification as a trauma certified registered nurse (TCRN) could give you a boost. The Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing (BCEN) offers this certification, and the Society of Trauma Nurses highly recommends it.
To earn your TCRN certification, you’ll need:
Specialty Trauma Certifications
Depending on where you work, you might be required to get additional certification. For example, if you work in a trauma unit that treats children, you might need an Emergency Nursing Pediatric Course (ENPC), specifically the Trauma Nursing Core Course (TNCC)
Other certifications through the BCEN that trauma nurses might need include:
Certified Flight Registered Nurse (CFRN)
Certified Emergency Nurse (CEN)
Certified Transport Registered Nurse (CTRN)
Where the Jobs Are, and What They Pay
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the registered nursing field is expected to grow at a rate of 6 percent through 2031—slightly faster than the national job growth rate. The Society of Trauma Nurses expects the number of traumatic injuries to grow in coming years, in large part because the nation’s baby boomer population continues to grow and age. As a result, this field of nursing is one of the most in-demand in the nation.
According to a 2021 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the following seven states will have the largest nursing shortage by 2030:
If you live in any of these states and are thinking about becoming a trauma nurse, now might be the perfect time to earn your degree and certification.
Education + Experience = Salary
The median salary for an RN is $77,600 per year, according to the BLS, but specialized nurses tend to earn more. RN salaries by state and earning percentiles are as follows:
Median Salary: $77,600
Projected job growth: 6.2%
10th Percentile: $59,450
25th Percentile: $61,790
75th Percentile: $97,580
90th Percentile: $120,250
Projected job growth: 6.2%
|State||Median Salary||Bottom 10%||Top 10%|
|District of Columbia||$95,220||$62,700||$129,670|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.
A 2019 survey by the STN and BCEN found that trauma nurses earn an average salary of $82,500, based on a range of $67,500 to $102,500. What you earn will depend on your experience, education, and employer.
And education is important for this specialty: Among emergency and trauma nurses, 78 percent hold at least a BSN, according the Society of Trauma Nurses survey. A BSN and certification are likely to boost your salary and help advance your career.
Stay Connected to Move Ahead
After you get your degree and certification, you’ll want to stay informed in your field to advance your career. Some great ways to keep up with trends and developments include:
- Subscribe to the Journal of Trauma Nursing. Published by STN, the journal can help you keep up with the latest developments in the field.
- Be active on social media. Follow nursing organizations like the STN on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to make connections and learn about classes, conferences, and other events.
- Join professional organizations for trauma nurses. These groups can help you access job boards, mentors, and other resources. Check out these organizations to get started.
The Society of Trauma Nurses (STN)
STN hosts annual conferences, publishes research in the field, and matches nurses to mentors.
American Trauma Society
The ANS provides networking opportunities for trauma professionals as well as conferences and educational materials.
Emergency Nurses Association (ENA)
The ENA supports trauma and ER nurses and provides continuing education, networking, and career advancement tools.
Air & Surface Transport Emergency Nurses Association
ASTN is a resource for nurses who work in critical care transportation such as flight and ambulance nursing.
Are You a Future Trauma Nurse?
If you excel in unpredictable, changing work environments, this specialty could be a great fit for you.
Trauma nurses need strong critical thinking skills and the ability to think on their feet in life-or-death situations, quickly assessing patients and helping stabilize them in medical emergencies. Employers look for strong communications skills, careful attention to detail, and confidence during crisis situations. You’ll also need an extra dose of empathy to help patients and families stay calm during critical operations and procedures.
If you possess these strengths, you may be a valuable member on a trauma team.