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The ICU vs. ED: What Pays Better?

Check out the average salary for RNs, NPs and PAs working in the ICU and ED, and see how it compares to the national average.

The intensive care unit and emergency department conjure images of a never-ending stream of patients and some of the strangest conditions. While both environments will offer days that match this description, most of the time, they’re quite different — from the number of patients to basic procedures and pay.

For example, the ER tends to be more fast-paced, and those who work there can see dozens of patients a night who require varying degrees of attention and treatment. Some say the most important skill to work in the ER is staying calm under pressure.

Working in the ICU, however, usually involves fewer patients — often just one or two — but that doesn’t mean things are slower. These patients require around-the-clock monitoring; even the slightest change in their condition can have significant repercussions. Attention to detail is paramount.

What Are ICU and ED RNs and APPs Paid?

Because these are two of the most competitive environments for clinicians, the pay can be higher than average.

For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average RN in the US makes $71,730 a year. The average ED RN earns $74,990, according to, with the majority making between $66,972 and $83,286 a year. The ICU pays slightly less, according to, with average annual pay of $74,453 and a narrower range — $67,096 to $80,904.

On the other hand, some nurse practitioners in the ICU and ED make less than the national average of $113,930, but others don’t. According to ZipRecruiter, critical care NPs take home about $102,520 annually, compared to $133,417 for emergency medicine NPs.

Physician assistants in the ICU and ED can be more highly compensated than NPs in those places. That said, PAs’ average salary via BLS — $108,610 — is less than NPs’. According to the AAPA 2019 salary report, the average PA working in the ED makes $112,000. But ZipRecruiter says the average PA in the ICU takes home $149,818.

Of course, salaries for clinicians in the ICU and ED range widely depending on education, experience level, and location. The West and Northeast tend to pay healthcare workers the best. The South and Midwest usually offer lower wages.

And keep in mind that ZipRecruiter data averages the salaries of job postings, not income across the board. In addition, the data may pull in the salaries of physicians, who are paid more, which could skew the numbers.

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