Registered nurses (RNs) provide and coordinate patient care, educate patients and the public about various health conditions, and provide advice and emotional support to patients and their family members.
Registered nurses typically do the following:
- Record patients' medical histories and symptoms
- Give patients medicines and treatments
- Set up plans for patients’ care or contribute to existing plans
- Observe patients and record the observations
- Consult with doctors and other healthcare professionals
- Operate and monitor medical equipment
- Help perform diagnostic tests and analyze results
- Teach patients and their families how to manage their illnesses or injuries
- Explain what to do at home after treatment
Some registered nurses oversee licensed practical nurses, nursing aides, and home care aides.
Registered nurses sometimes work to promote general health by educating the public on warning signs and symptoms of disease. They might also run general health screenings or immunization clinics, blood drives, or other outreach programs.
Most registered nurses work as part of a team with physicians and other healthcare specialists.
Some nurses have jobs in which they do not work directly with patients, but they must still have an active registered nurse license. For example, they may work as nurse educators, healthcare consultants, public policy advisors, researchers, hospital administrators, salespeople for pharmaceutical and medical supply companies, or as medical writers and editors.
Registered nurses' duties and titles often depend on where they work and the patients they work with. They can focus on the following specialties:
- A specific health condition, such as a diabetes management nurse who helps patients with diabetes or an oncology nurse who helps cancer patients
- A specific part of the body, such as a dermatology nurse working with patients who have skin problems
- A specific group of people, such as a geriatric nurse who works with the elderly or a pediatric nurse who works with children and teens
- A specific workplace, such as an emergency or trauma nurse who works in a hospital or stand-alone emergency department or a school nurse working in an elementary, middle, or high school rather than in a hospital or doctor's office.
Some registered nurses combine one or more of these specialties. For example, a pediatric oncology nurse works with children and teens who have cancer.
Many possibilities for specializing exist. The following list includes just a few other examples of ways that some registered nurses specialize:
Addiction nurses care for patients who need help to overcome addictions to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and other substances.
Cardiovascular nurses treat patients with heart disease and people who have had heart surgery.
Critical care nurses work in intensive care units in hospitals, providing care to patients with serious, complex, and acute illnesses and injuries that need very close monitoring and treatment.
Genetics nurses provide screening, counseling, and treatment of patients with genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease.
Neonatology nurses take care of newborn babies.
Nephrology nurses treat patients who have kidney-related health issues that are attributable to diabetes, high blood pressure, substance abuse, or other causes.
Rehabilitation nurses care for patients with temporary or permanent disabilities.
Advanced practice registered nurses may provide primary and specialty care, and, in most states, they may prescribe medicines. All states specifically define requirements for registered nurses in these four advanced practice roles:
- Clinical nurse specialists provide direct patient care and expert consultations in one of many nursing specialties, such as psychiatric-mental health.
- Nurse anesthetists provide anesthesia and related care before and after surgical, therapeutic, diagnostic, and obstetrical procedures. They also provide pain management and emergency services.
- Nurse-midwives provide care to women, including gynecological exams, family planning advice, prenatal care, assistance in labor and delivery, and care of newborns.
- Nurse practitioners serve as primary and specialty care providers, providing a blend of nursing and primary care services to patients and families.
As the largest healthcare occupation, registered nurses held about 2.7 million jobs in 2010.
Most registered nurses work in well-lit, comfortable healthcare facilities. Home health and public health nurses travel to patients' homes, schools, community centers, and other sites.
Some registered nurses work in correctional facilities, schools, summer camps, and nurses often work with the military. Some move frequently, traveling in the United States and throughout the world to help care for patients in places where there are not enough healthcare workers.
Registered nurses may spend a lot of time walking, bending, stretching, and standing. They are vulnerable to back injuries because they must often lift and move patients. The work of registered nurses may put them in close contact with people who have infectious diseases, and they often come in contact with potentially harmful and hazardous drugs and other substances. Therefore, registered nurses must follow strict, standardized guidelines to guard against diseases and other dangers, such as radiation, accidental needle sticks, or the chemicals they use to sterilize instruments.
Because patients in hospitals and nursing care facilities need round-the-clock care, nurses in these settings usually work in rotating shifts, covering all 24 hours. They may work nights, weekends, and holidays. They may also be on call.
Nurses who work in offices, schools, and other places that do not provide 24-hour care are more likely to work regular business hours.
In 2010, about 20 percent of registered nurses worked part time.
Education and training:
Registered nurses usually take one of three education paths: a bachelor's of science degree in nursing (BSN), an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN), or a diploma from an approved nursing program. Registered nurses must also be licensed.
In all nursing education programs, students take courses in nursing, anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry, nutrition, psychology and other social and behavioral sciences, as well as in liberal arts. BSN programs typically take four years to complete; ADN and diploma programs usually take two to three years to complete.
All programs also include supervised clinical experience in hospital departments such as pediatrics, psychiatry, maternity, and surgery. A number of programs include clinical experience in extended and long-term care facilities, public health departments, home health agencies, or ambulatory (walk-in) clinics.
Bachelor's degree programs usually include more training in the physical and social sciences, communication, leadership, and critical thinking, which is becoming more important as nursing practice becomes more complex. They also offer more clinical experience in nonhospital settings. A bachelor's degree or higher is often necessary for administrative positions, research, consulting, and teaching.
Generally, licensed graduates of any of the three types of education programs (bachelor's, associate’s, or diploma) qualify for entry-level positions as a staff nurse.
Many registered nurses with an ADN or diploma find an entry-level position and then take advantage of tuition reimbursement benefits to work toward a BSN by completing an RN-to-BSN program. There are also master’s degree programs in nursing, combined bachelor’s and master’s programs, and programs for those who wish to enter the nursing profession but hold a bachelor’s degree in another field.
In all states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories, registered nurses must have a nursing license.
Skills to Develop:
Critical-thinking skills: Registered nurses must be able to assess changes in the health state of patients, including when to take corrective action and when to make referrals.
Compassion: Registered nurses should be caring and sympathetic, characteristics that are valuable when treating patients.
Detail oriented: Registered nurses must be responsible and detail oriented because they must make sure that patients get the correct treatments and medicines at the right time.
Emotional stability: Registered nurses need emotional stability to cope with human suffering, emergencies, and other stresses.
Organizational skills: Nurses often work with multiple patients with various health needs, and organizational skills are critical to ensure the patient is given proper care.
Patience: Registered nurses should be patient so they can provide quality care under stressful or hectic circumstances.
Speaking skills: Registered nurses must be able to talk effectively with patients to correctly assess their health conditions. Nurses need to clearly explain how to take medication or give other instructions. They must be able to work in teams with other health professionals and communicate the patients’ needs.
Employment of registered nurses is expected to grow 26 percent from 2010 to 2020, faster than the average for all occupations. Growth will occur primarily because of technological advancements, permitting a greater number of health problems to be treated; an increased emphasis on preventive care; and the large, aging baby boomer population who will demand more healthcare services as they live longer and more active lives than previous generations. Faster than average growth is expected in traditional hospital settings, as well as in non-hospital settings, such as physician’s offices and home healthcare services.
Growth is expected to be much faster than average in outpatient care centers, where patients do not stay overnight, such as those that provide same-day chemotherapy, rehabilitation, and surgery. Also, an increased number of procedures, as well as more sophisticated procedures once done only in hospitals, are being done in physicians' offices.
The financial pressure on hospitals to discharge patients as soon as possible should mean more people admitted to extended and long-term care facilities and more need for home healthcare. As the baby boomers grow older, there will be greater demand for home healthcare.
In addition, because many older people want to be treated at home or in residential care facilities, registered nurses will be in demand in those settings. Job growth is also expected in facilities that provide long-term rehabilitation for stroke and head injury patients, as well as facilities that treat people with Alzheimer's disease (memory loss, dementia).
Overall, job opportunities for registered nurses are expected to be excellent. Employers in some parts of the country and in some employment settings report difficulty in attracting and keeping enough registered nurses.
Job opportunities should be excellent, even in hospitals, because of the relatively high turnover of hospital nurses. To attract and keep qualified nurses, hospitals may offer signing bonuses, family-friendly work schedules, or subsidized training.
In physicians' offices and outpatient care centers, registered nurses may face greater competition for positions because these jobs generally offer regular working hours and provide more comfortable working conditions than hospitals.
Generally, registered nurses with at least a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) will have better job prospects than those without one.
In addition, all four advanced practice registered nurses—clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists, nurse-midwives, and nurse practitioners—will be in high demand, particularly in medically underserved areas such as inner cities and rural areas.
The median annual wage of registered nurses was $64,690 in May 2010. The median wage is the wage at which half of the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $44,190 and the top 10 percent earned more than $95,130.
Many employers offer flexible work schedules, child care, educational benefits, and bonuses. About 19 percent of registered nurses are union members or covered by a union contract.
Because patients in hospitals and nursing care facilities need round-the-clock care, nurses in these settings usually work in rotating shifts, covering all 24 hours. They may work nights, weekends, and holidays. They may also be on call, which means they are on duty and must be available to work on short notice.
Nurses who work in offices, schools, and other places that do not provide 24-hour care are more likely to work regular business hours.
What is this job like?
Nurses, also called registered nurses or RNs, take care of sick and injured people. They give people medicine. They treat wounds. And they give emotional support to patients and their families.
Nurses ask patients about their symptoms and keep detailed records. They watch for signs that people are sick. Then, nurses help doctors examine and treat patients.
Some nurses help to give tests to find out why people are sick. Some also do lab work to get test results.
Nurses also teach people how to take care of themselves and their families. Some nurses teach people about diet and exercise and how to follow doctors' instructions. Some nurses run clinics and immunization centers.
Nurses can focus on treating one type of patient, such as babies or children. They can also focus on one type of problem. Some focus on helping doctors during surgery. Others work in emergency rooms or intensive care units.
Many nurses work in doctors' offices. They help with medical tests, give medicines, and dress wounds. Some also do lab and office work.
Home health nurses go to people's homes to help them. Flight nurses fly in helicopters to get to sick people in emergencies.
Some nurses have special training and can do more advanced work. Nurse practitioners can prescribe medicine. Nurse midwives can help women give birth.
Helping sick people and dealing with medical emergencies can be stressful. Nurses in hospitals often have to help many patients at once.
Many nurses spend a lot of time walking and standing. Nurses also need to be careful in order to stay safe. Nurses care for people who have diseases that they can catch. Nurses can get hurt while helping to move patients. Nurses also need to guard against radiation from x-rays and chemicals in medicine.
Because patients need 24-hour care, hospital nurses often work nights, weekends, and holidays. Office nurses are more likely to work regular hours. Many nurses work part time.
How do you get ready?
Nurses must graduate from a nursing program. It takes about 2 years of college to attain an associate degree in nursing. It takes about 4 years to finish a bachelor's degree in nursing. And a nursing diploma program usually takes about 3 years.
Deciding what kind of training to get is important. Some career paths are open only to nurses who have a bachelor's degree.
Nursing education includes taking classes and hands-on learning with experienced nurses in hospitals and other places. This is called clinical training.
Nurses study anatomy, chemistry, nutrition, psychology, and nursing theory.
After graduating, nurses need to pass a test to get a nursing license. They have to take classes every few years to keep their skills current.
Nurses need to be caring and kind. They also need to be good at recognizing problems and remembering details.
Nurses need to work well with doctors and patients. Many nurses also supervise assistants and other workers.
Nurses can become head nurses or directors of nursing. Some nurses move into the business side of health care. Some get jobs in big health care firms planning, marketing, and making sure people get good care.
How much does this job pay?
The median annual wage of registered nurses was $64,690 in May 2010.
How many jobs are there?
Registered nurses is the largest health care occupation. They held about 2.7 million jobs in 2010.
What about the future?
Very good job opportunities are expected for registered nurses. Jobs for registered nurses is expected to grow at 26 percent from 2010 to 2020. This is faster than the average for all occupations.
Many new jobs will be available for people who want to be nurses. New ways of helping people will let nurses treat more problems. The number of older people who need more health care will grow very rapidly. They will need nurses to treat them when they get sick.
Hospitals will need nurses, but many new nurses will also work in home health, clinics, doctors' offices, and nursing homes.
Nursing - Wikipedia overview
Nursing - Sloan Career Cornerstone Center
Nursing World - American Nurses Association website
Your Nursing Career - American Assoc. of Colleges of Nursing website
Discover Nursing - Informational site includes scholarship opportunities
Registered Nurses - Bureau of Labor Statistics outlook
Some information on this page has been provided by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.