Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is a high-tech, well-established medical treatment that allows patients to breathe 100 percent pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber. These chambers are powerful tools for medical staff to increase the lungs’ oxygen intake and promote healing with growth factors. Significant evidence supports HBOT’s effectiveness in treating conditions like decompression sickness, gangrene, brain abscess, burns, arterial gas embolism, and diabetic ulcers. Healthcare facilities must hire skilled staff for oversight of hyperbaric chambers to avoid certain risks, including oxygen poisoning and lung damage. Registered nurses in the hyperbaric specialty are essential for the safe use of chambers that simulate a deep-sea dive nearly 165 feet underwater. Hyperbaric nurses provide care to one or multiple patients receiving higher tissue oxygenation in compliance with regulations.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that America’s 2.75 million registered nurses earn a mean annual wage of $71,000, or $34.14 per hour, across specialties. PayScale specifically states that Certified Hyperbaric Registered Nurses (CHRN) have a median hourly rate of $39.31. Hyperbaric nurses working in general medical hospitals and outpatient facilities can expect mean income at $72,980 and $73,620, but specialty hospitals pay $76,310 on average.
Newly hired hyperbaric RNs would likely land in the bottom 10th percentile of earnings with a salary around $46,360 per year. However, career advancement comes with big salary increases for hyperbaric nurses to make over $101,630. Income potential is highest in California and Hawaii with average salaries being $101,260 and $90,130 respectively. Hyperbaric nurses who pursue master’s-level APRN roles like nurse practitioner earn between $70,540 and $135,830.
Hyperbaric nurses work in a unique environment relieving the symptoms of diverse medical conditions in high-pressure air chambers, but their duties are similar to other RNs. They’ll record patients’ medical histories to help physicians establish a hyperbaric treatment plan. Hyperbaric nurses then prepare the one-person chamber or multi-patient room for two to six hours of HBOT treatment. They help patients remain relaxed and comfortable while following safety regulations that avert flammability. Guiding patients with breathing exercises to reduce ear pressure is vital. When therapy ends, hyperbaric nurses slowly depressurize and cool the chamber to get patients breathing normally. Hyperbaric RNs also provide follow-up care to check for dizziness, sinus pressure, or more severe side effects.
Working in hyperbaric medicine requires nurses to have in-depth clinical knowledge of the physics behind the chambers and their bodily effects. Hyperbaric RNs need advanced patient assessment skills to follow any red flags of severe trauma like seizures or lung collapse. Being a quick thinker with good judgment helps hyperbaric nurses determine which conditions need oxygen-rich care fast, such as carbon monoxide poisoning. Communication skills are critical for hyperbaric RNs to convey patient information to other medical staff. Hyperbaric nurses need interpersonal awareness to assuage patients’ discomfort in unusual, close quarters. Since most work with minimal supervision, hyperbaric RNs must also be creative, intuitive problem-solvers with self-directed motivation and ethical integrity.
Degree and Education Requirements
Graduating from a CCNE or ACEN accredited nursing school is generally required for an associate or bachelor’s degree. Hyperbaric nurses with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) are preferred for their more in-depth technical mastery of patient treatments. Registered nurses with a diploma or associate degree could make themselves more marketable in on-campus or online RN-BSN programs. Nurses would benefit from electives in hyperbaric medicine, wound care, emergency patient management, and decompression theory. The NBDHMT offers a list of approved training courses across the U.S. and abroad. Nurses who attend graduate school for an MSN could advance their responsibility as clinical nurse specialists and nurse practitioners.
Pros and Cons of the Position
Stepping into the little-known RN specialty of hyperbaric nursing will provide both rewards and challenges. Let’s start off positive with the above-average annual and hourly wage as well as excellent benefits extended to hyperbaric nurses. Job prospects are steadily growing as more research broadens the usefulness of HBOT in modern medicine. Hyperbaric nurses often have greater autonomy in their work, especially in settings where they’re the sole nurse. Developing personal relationships with patients daily for 2+ hours is meaningful for many hyperbaric RNs. Staying hands-on with checking vitals, applying dressings, and running safety checks is also stimulating. However, hyperbaric nurses work for long shifts during irregular hours that are primarily spent standing, which is physically taxing. There’s a risk for hyperbaric RNs to develop the “bends” with exposure to high-pressure oxygen. Hyperbaric nurses interact frequently with fearful patients who are scared the chamber might catch fire from oxygen’s flammability. Taking steps to maintain CHRN certification is time-consuming too.
Gaining actual on-the-job experience with a decompression chamber is the first step. It’s vital that you apply for clinical practicum or internship placements where hyperbaric medicine is practiced. There are roughly 500 hospitals nationwide with a chamber or multi-place room, such as Arizona Heart Hospital, Casa Colina Hospital, Frederick Memorial Hospital, and New York Methodist Hospital. Specialized training is a monumental part of learning the wide range of medical complaints treated under HBOT. At graduation, you’ll have to pass the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN) for state licensing. Many facilities then suggest becoming industry-certified by the National Board of Diving and Hyperbaric Medical Technology. The CHRN credential requires at least 24 months of direct care in hyperbaric chambers and Certification in Basic Life Support by the AHA.
Registered nursing is a recession-proof job that’s currently facing a critical shortage across its specialties, including hyperbaric medicine. The BLS has estimated that RN employment will see faster-than-average growth by 16 percent. It’s projected that the nursing workforce will expand to 3.19 million before 2024, thus leaving a wake of openings that will be worsened by retiring baby boomers. Insufficient staffing has caused a national vacancy rate of 16.1 percent for RN jobs. This problem will be further exacerbated by the growing interest in hyperbaric oxygen therapy, especially among the 5 million U.S. adults with non-healing wounds. RNs are encouraged to join this specialty with positions mainly in hospitals, outpatient clinics, and independent hyperbaric companies.
Overall, hyperbaric nurses are specially trained RNs who help better dissolve oxygen in the body by safely putting patients in pressurized chambers or rooms. Since Henshaw designed the first hyperbaric chamber in 1662, the field has advanced widely for 13 FDA-approved uses, such as radiation injury, severe anemia, and acute traumatic ischemia. Becoming a hyperbaric nurse will provide you the unmatched opportunity to provide potentially life-saving therapy with close patient interaction.