Doctor checking on a patient at the ICU


Core functions of a Clinical Nurse Leader include collaborating with other health care professionals, exemplifying clinical expertise, and providing proper patient care by promoting health and various preventative measures. In the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), a CNL has the expertise to apply all aspects of the nursing process and care management principles to critical care patients in the acute and chronic setting.


A Clinical Nurse Leader works in theICUand focuses on patient care. Their primary responsibilities include coordinating care, evaluating patient satisfaction, and conducting daily patient assessments. A CNL may also act as an educator to other nurses and intervene in the micro-system to ensure high quality of performance in the healthcare setting. Duties in this role include but are not limited to:

  • Tailoring care practices to improve patient outcomes based on holistic assessment of patients.
  • Cooperating with other interdisciplinary team members in the health care setting and acting as a resource when necessary.


In the Intensive Care Unit, the salary of a CNL ranges from $47,000 to $90,000. The average is $69,000. (Note: Salary data collected as of 2016.)


Although specific requirements may vary depending on the facility, a Clinical Nurse Leader is an advanced generalist educated at a master’s degree level; they are required to have an MSN from a program accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). They may also require a nursing license specific to the state in which they plan to operate and pass a CNL certification exam.


Certain work environments can be stressful due to the overwhelming number of tasks that need to be juggled when caring for 10 to 12 patients. By contrast, the ICU has much smaller patient loads. Sometimes there is a 1:1 ratio between patient and nurse. This allows CNLs and the rest of the medical team to provide much more thorough and personalized care to each critically ill patient.


The ICU doesn’t require any specialized skills or knowledge beyond the typical abilities expected of any CNL. It does, however, demand excellence. A CNL’s performance in the ICU is easily measurable by several metrics, including the number of hospital-acquired infections and rates of re-hospitalization. Clinical Nurse Leaders will need to work with all members of each micro-system to design and implement a model of care that will promote the smoothest path to recovery for each patient.


Working in the ICU can exact a heavy emotional toll. The constant need to perform and make decisions that have life-or-death consequences for your patients can quickly lead to burnout. In addition, losing a patient in the ICU can be even more devastating than it would be in a department with less intimate and personalized interaction between patient and nurse. Finding a coping mechanism outside of work will be an important part of maintaining the requisite equanimity and composure while on the job.