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Career Guide: Registered Nurse

Career Guide: Registered Nurse

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Nature of the Work

Registered nurses (RNs), regardless of specialty or work setting, treat patients, educate patients and the public about various medical conditions, and provide advice and emotional support to patients’ family members. RNs record patients’ medical histories and symptoms, help perform diagnostic tests and analyze results, operate medical machinery, administer treatment and medications, and help with patient follow-up and rehabilitation.

RNs teach patients and their families how to manage their illness or injury, explaining post-treatment home care needs; diet, nutrition, and exercise programs; and self-administration of medication and physical therapy. Some RNs work to promote general health by educating the public on warning signs and symptoms of disease. RNs also might run general health screening or immunization clinics, blood drives, and public seminars on various conditions.

When caring for patients, RNs establish a plan of care or contribute to an existing plan. Plans may include numerous activities, such as administering medication, including careful checking of dosages and avoiding interactions; starting, maintaining, and discontinuing intravenous (IV) lines for fluid, medication, blood, and blood products; administering therapies and treatments; observing the patient and recording those observations; and consulting with physicians and other health care clinicians. Some RNs provide direction to licensed practical nurses and nursing aids regarding patient care. RNs with advanced educational preparation and training may perform diagnostic and therapeutic procedures and may have prescriptive authority.

RNs can specialize in one or more areas of patient care. There generally are four ways to specialize. RNs can choose a particular work setting or type of treatment, such as perioperative nurses, who work in operating rooms and assist surgeons. RNs also may choose to specialize in specific health conditions, as do diabetes management nurses, who assist patients to manage diabetes. Other RNs specialize in working with one or more organs or body system types, such as dermatology nurses, who work with patients who have skin disorders. RNs also can choose to work with a well-defined population, such as geriatric nurses, who work with the elderly. Some RNs may combine specialties. For example, pediatric oncology nurses deal with children and adolescents who have cancer.

There are many options for RNs who specialize in a work setting or type of treatment. Ambulatory care nurses provide preventive care and treat patients with a variety of illnesses and injuries in physicians’ offices or in clinics. Some ambulatory care nurses are involved in telehealth, providing care and advice through electronic communications media such as videoconferencing, the Internet, or by telephone. Critical care nurses provide care to patients with serious, complex, and acute illnesses or injuries that require very close monitoring and extensive medication protocols and therapies. Critical care nurses often work in critical or intensive care hospital units. Emergency, or trauma, nurses work in hospital or stand-alone emergency departments, providing initial assessments and care for patients with life-threatening conditions. Some emergency nurses may become qualified to serve as transport nurses, who provide medical care to patients who are transported by helicopter or airplane to the nearest medical facility. Holistic nurses provide care such as acupuncture, massage and aroma therapy, and biofeedback, which are meant to treat patients’ mental and spiritual health in addition to their physical health.

Home health care nurses provide at-home nursing care for patients, often as follow-up care after discharge from a hospital or from a rehabilitation, long-term care, or skilled nursing facility. Hospice and palliative care nurses provide care, most often in home or hospice settings, focused on maintaining quality of life for terminally ill patients. Infusion nurses administer medications, fluids, and blood to patients through injections into patients’ veins. Long- term care nurses provide health care services on a recurring basis to patients with chronic physical or mental disorders, often in long-term care or skilled nursing facilities. Medical-surgical nurses provide health promotion and basic medical care to patients with various medical and surgical diagnoses. Occupational health nurses seek to prevent job-related injuries and illnesses, provide monitoring and emergency care services, and help employers implement health and safety standards. Perianesthesia nurses provide preoperative and postoperative care to patients undergoing anesthesia during surgery or other procedure. Perioperative nurses assist surgeons by selecting and handling instruments, controlling bleeding, and suturing incisions. Some of these nurses also can specialize in plastic and reconstructive surgery. Psychiatric-mental health nurses treat patients with personality and mood disorders. Radiology nurses provide care to patients undergoing diagnostic radiation procedures such as ultrasounds, magnetic resonance imaging, and radiation therapy for oncology diagnoses. Rehabilitation nurses care for patients with temporary and permanent disabilities. Transplant nurses care for both transplant recipients and living donors and monitor signs of organ rejection.


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