If you’re a student or recent graduate, you’re probably trying to figure out what area of nursing is best for your career before you apply for the different travel healthcare companies or look for a travel nurse recruiter.

Maybe you’ve even heard that a PCU unit is a collaborative, dynamic environment. But what is the meaning of PCU and how is it different from other sectors of a hospital?

But with all the acronyms such as ICU, PCU, and TCU being used in hospitals today, you may be wondering, what does PCU stand for?

A PCU is a Progressive Care Unit. PCUs, sometimes referred to as intermediate care or step-down units, provide an intermediate level of patient care that bridges the gap between intensive care units and med surg units. In this article, we’ll address your questions about PCUs and PCU nursing so you can plan for your future career.

What Is the Difference Between PCU vs ICU?

To best understand the care a PCU provides, it’s helpful to compare these units to the more well-known intensive care unit(ICUs).

Both PCUs and ICUs deal with critically ill patients that require intensive care. Nurses working in either unit need to demonstrate high levels of nursing competency.

Despite their similarities, there are some key differences between ICUs and PCU units.

What Is an ICU?

The biggest difference between an intensive care unit (ICU) and a PCU is the level of care that patients require. Patients in the ICU are the most vulnerable in the hospital, necessitating constant care and supervision. The ratio of nurses to patients in an ICU might be as low as 1:1.

The following conditions are all commonly treated in the ICU:

  • Major trauma
  • Severe burns
  • Respiratory failure
  • Organ transplants
  • Complex spinal surgery
  • Cardiothoracic surgery

ICU patients are often intubated and ventilated. They may also have multiple IV drips, so an ICU nurse practitioner must be more knowledgeable about a wider variety of equipment than a registered nurse not working in the critical care unit. If you are thinking about becoming an ICU nurse, it’s important to keep in mind that this nursing specialty can be quite demanding and requires a high level of skill.

What is PCU in Hospital Settings?

PCU nurses, on the other hand, have the responsibility of caring for those patients that are too sick for general med surg floors, but not sick enough for the ICU.

  • A PCU patient is still very ill and requires intensive care, but they are generally stable.
  • PCU nurses must monitor vital signs to detect any changes and transfer patients to the ICU if their condition worsens.
  • While critically ill patients in the ICU are often ventilated or sedated, PCU patients are often able to talk.
  • PCU patients also generally have longer stays than do patients in the ICU.

If you value getting to know your patients and their family members, you might enjoy working in a PCU rather than an ICU.

What does a progressive care unit nurse do?

Although PCU patients require less intensive care than ICU patients, PCU nursing is still an intense, challenging, and extremely rewarding job. The work you do in this nursing specialty will constantly be changing.

On any given day, a progressive care unit nurse might:

  • Examine patients with a variety of different conditions
  • Converse with a healthcare team, patients, and patient family members
  • Treat wounds and superficial lacerations
  • Refer patients for specialty consultations of treatments
  • Monitor patients vitals
  • Calculate and adjust drug dosages

…and more.

And unlike in an ICU where patient turnover is high, PCU nurses have the opportunity to form relationships with each PCU patient that comes in and watch them improve.

Many progressive care nurses say that the most rewarding part of being a PCU nurse is having patients come in from the ICU in critical condition and then become healthy enough to be discharged.

What Kinds of Patients Are in the PCU?

Working in a progressive care unit can be both challenging and incredibly rewarding because of the variety of patients that you encounter.

The first designated progressive care units were used for close monitoring of patients after cardiac arrests, but the breadth of conditions that lead patients to a PCU has greatly increased.

Patients who in the past would have been admitted to the ICU are increasingly being admitted to PCU units instead.1

Patients suffering from all of the following conditions might end up in the PCU:

  • Heart attack or other cardiac condition
  • Surgical recovery
  • Severe pneumonia
  • Chronic wounds
  • Sepsis or other critical infection
  • Complications from chronic issues like diabetes
  • Trauma

Common to all these patients is a need for intensive nursing care and high levels of surveillance.

For example, patients are commonly admitted to the PCU after surgery when they are relatively stable but need to be closely monitored in case the patient’s condition worsens rapidly and they need to be transferred to an ICU.

How Do I Become a PCU Nurse?

Now that you know the answer to the question, what is a PCU unit?, you may have decided that being a PCU nurse is the right step for you and your career.

Now, are you wondering, how does someone become a PCU nurse?

Although progressive care nursing does not fall under the umbrella of any critical care unit, progressive care nurses must still demonstrate high levels of nursing competency and critical thinking skills. Next, we’ll summarize the best ways to acquire these capabilities.

What Qualifications Do I Need to Work in a PCU?

One of the benefits of a career in PCU nursing is that any registered nurse (RN) is eligible. If you’re just beginning your educational journey, you’ll need to complete one of the following degrees:

  • Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) – This two-year program can qualify you to sit for the NCLEX exam and begin work as an RN.
  • Bachelors of Science in Nursing (BSN) – A longer four-year program can equip you with a well-rounded skill set that is more attractive to employers. Likewise, you’ll be well-prepared for the NCLEX exam.

Once you’ve passed the NCLEX exam and become an RN in your state, you’re ready to begin applying to PCU nursing jobs.

Some nurses might choose to get a PCCN certification from the AACN after two years of professional experience to show employers that they are qualified to care for acutely ill patients and work in a PCU.2

Keep in mind that PCUs have opportunities for nurses at every level of training. If you’re interested in becoming a nurse practitioner (NP), you could take on even more responsibility in a PCU after completing your advanced training.

What Skills Do PCU Nurses Need?

Because the duties a nurse might need to perform in a PCU differ from hospital to hospital—and even day to day—a PCU nurse needs to have a wide range of skills.

A PCU nurse might find a progressive care unit that is highly specialized and only focuses on cardiac patients, or they might end up in a more general unit taking care of patients with multi-system problems.

To give you a better view of what kinds of care a PCU nurse might be expected to provide, and the skills required, here is a list of some of the core competencies that PCU nurses should demonstrate according to the AACN:3

  • Life support procedures
  • Cardiac care
  • Administering drugs at their appropriate dosage and monitoring patient response
  • Managing intravenous insulin
  • Communicating with and educating the patients’ families
  • Recognizing behavioral emergencies

Additionally, the PCU is an intensely collaborative environment. To satisfy the complex and changing needs of a patient, a PCU nurse must have the ability to work closely with other healthcare workers. That means you’ll need:

  • Strong communication skills
  • Ability to multitask
  • Emotional intelligence

Job Outlook

There is good news for PCU nurses and people looking to enter the field. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 7% in the next 10 years, and progressive care is one of the fastest-growing specialties.4

In the future, hospitals will need to hire large numbers of nurses to staff PCUs as more and more patients are treated in PCUs instead of ICUs.

Additionally, PCU nurses are well-compensated for their work.

  • Payscale shows PCCN certified nurses as earning an average salary of about $77,000.5
  • There are many types of travel nurses, PCU nurses included. Opening the door to benefits such as top-of-the-line living accommodations, travel reimbursements, and bonuses.

Take Your PCU Nursing Skills on the Road with Host Healthcare

Whether you’re drawn to the opportunity to have an impact on patient health or are attracted to the stability and compensation, PCU nursing is an exciting and growing field. Plus, PCU is one of the most in demand nursing specialties around the country.

Nurses who attain advanced PCU skills can find work in diverse locales. And by becoming a PCU travel nurse, you have the opportunity to explore exciting destinations, gain experience working in reputable hospitals, and earn a competitive salary.

Host Healthcare is one of the best travel healthcare companies in the U.S. We work to place our travelers in roles that meet their interests and needs.

If you’re ready to become a PCU traveler, apply to Host Healthcare today.


  1. American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. Frequently Asked Questions About PCCN Certification. https://www.aacn.org/certification/get-certified/frequently-asked-questions-about-pccn-certification
  2. American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. PCCN (Adult). https://www.aacn.org/certification/get-certified/pccn-adult
  3. American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. Progressive Care Fact Sheet. https://studylib.net/doc/18260022/progressive-care-fact-sheet—american-association-of-cri…
  4. U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics. Registered Nurses. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm
  5. Payscale. Average Registered Nurse (RN) with Step Down Skills Hourly Pay. https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Registered_Nurse_(RN)/Hourly_Rate/4486f202/Step-Down