What Does a Registered Nurse Do? A Look at the Everyday Healthcare Heroes

What Does a Registered Nurse Do

From Scrubs to Nurse Jackie to Chicago Med, you’ve seen nurses portrayed multiple times on TV. Sure, they wear scrubs, give shots and carry stethoscopes around their necks, but what does a registered nurse actually do? More than you might think!

For starters, registered nurses (RNs) are not limited to working in hospital settings. RNs can also work in clinics, schools, assisted living facilities, homes, schools and more. They can also specialize in areas such as cardiac care, midwifery, family practice, geriatrics, labor and delivery and emergency nursing.

Increased access to healthcare and an aging Baby Boomer population have led to high demand for registered nurses. In fact, employment for RNs is projected to increase 16 percent through 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That growth coupled with the above-average earning potential makes a registered nursing career sound appealing.

The various benefits of being a nurse have you considering this career. But what do registered nurses do on a daily basis? Read on to get a closer look at those superheros serving in scrubs.

Basic registered nursing duties

Nursing responsibilities can vary greatly depending on the healthcare setting. But in an average day, RNs might administer medication, consult with other healthcare providers, monitor patients, educate individuals and family and be responsible for managing medical records. They must also stay up-to-date with new tools and technology to help provide the best care to patients and families, and the best support to doctors and other healthcare professionals.

Outside of patient care, RNs can eventually attain leadership positions, such as the role of nurse manager. They may also go on to earn their Master of Science in Nursing degree to become a nurse educator or land a coveted position in nursing administration. Additionally, RNs may choose to hone in on a nursing specialty as a way to advance in their career.

Aside from the standard technical medical duties, nurses must also have a strong blend of soft skills. Nurses working in any setting must possess excellent communication, decision-making, teamwork, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

Registered nursing job settings

As mentioned before, RNs are not limited to working in hospitals. Depending on the environment and what type of nurse you are, your day-to-day responsibilities will vary. To help you understand what a registered nurse does on a daily basis, we broke it down into four different work environments. Compare and contrast to find the right healthcare setting for you.

What does a registered nurse do in a hospital?

Working in a hospital is what comes to most people’s minds when they think of nursing – and for good reason. The BLS reports that in 2014, 61 percent of registered nurses worked in hospitals. Examples of registered nurses you might find in a hospital include cardiac care nurses, nurse managers, perioperative nurses and labor and delivery nurses.

Tina M. Baxter, APRN, GNP-BC and CEO of Baxter Professional Services LLC, breaks down the average shift in a hospital. The day begins with a report from the off-going shift of any new information, from admissions and discharges, to patients whose conditions might have worsened. Next comes the count of medications, and then patient assessments, which includes vitals and a medical evaluation.

“Any time during this process, you could be interrupted to handle emergencies, such as a patient coding or in arrest, an admission or any number of things,” Baxter explains.

Hospital RNs also administer medication, change dressings and document care in patients’ records. Hospitals know no business hours, which means these nurses may be expected to work long shifts, including overnight or on weekends and holidays.

What does a registered nurse do in a clinic?

As a clinic nurse, former RN Beth Anne Schwamberger says she and her coworkers would arrive before the doctor to set up the clinic. This included getting exam tables ready and in position, checking otoscope and ophthalmoscope lights for ear and eye tests, turning on computers and getting charts ready for the day.

A slow day in Schwamberger’s clinic meant 15 patients coming through the door, while a busy one meant 30 or more. The clinic’s computer system showed her when patients were ready. Clinic nurses often check height, weight and other vitals, and then get details of the patient’s injury or illness—whatever brought them to the clinic that day. Then it’s their duty to pass along the information to the doctor.

After patients meet with the doctor, clinic nurses handle follow-up tests like MRIs, X-rays and setting up meetings with specialists. In Schwamberger’s case where she was working with young athletes, she also taught stretching and strengthening exercises and gave out educational materials.

Clinic nurses typically care for patients with non-life-threatening injuries, so the work is not as fast-paced. They can also expect to work more predictable shifts during regular business hours.

What does a registered nurse do in critical care?

Critical care, also known as intensive care, involves treating patients with life-threatening conditions who are in need of constant care. Nurses who work in critical care may have the title of trauma nurse, ICU nurse or neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse.

Critical care nurses are tasked with responsibilities such as caring for dying patients, inserting life-saving IVs and injections and educating families on issues such as life support and caring for people with brain injuries. They treat patients who have been in severe accidents, had strokes, experienced trauma or who have life-threatening illnesses.

Sometimes, critical care can extend outside of a hospital as well. Lisa Weinstein of Bayada Home Health Care explains that critical-care patients can also be treated from the comfort of their own home. A typical critical-care home health nurse will deal with patients needing oxygen, feeding tubes, wound care, suctioning, ostomy care, catheter care, respiratory treatments and medication management, among other things.

“Thanks to advanced technology, the home is set up with equipment that mimics a hospital room,” Weinstein explains. These RNs are responsible for traveling to various locations for scheduled routine visits with patients.

What does a registered nurse do in ambulatory care?

Ambulatory care is the term applied to nurses who take care of patients outside of hospital settings. These include outpatient facilities, such as same-day surgery centers, rehabilitation centers and home hospice.

Examples of registered nurses who work in ambulatory care settings are: dialysis nurses, telehealth nurses and palliative care nurses. Because ambulatory care nurses can be specialists or generalists, they have a variety of duties.

Hospice is one of the most common ambulatory care services available, with 1.65 million people receiving hospice services in 2011.

“We get the privilege of advocating on behalf of our patients for a quality end-of-life experience—that includes physically, socially, emotionally, spiritually and creatively,” says Joseph Meehan, Hospice RN Team Manager at MJHS.

He explains that a typical hospice nurse will provide care, ensure proper medications are ordered, conduct assessments to make sure the patient is safe and comfortable at home, manage durable medical equipment orders and educate the patients and families on medications and side effects.

A career built on caring

So what does a registered nurse do? The answer is that it is often far more than a single patient realizes. They are part of a support system that requires them to wear many hats—from working with new technology to educating patients on healthcare. Nevertheless, all RNs have plenty of common qualities: They must be critical thinkers, problem-solvers and perceptive of patient needs—even unspoken ones.

RNs are a valuable and irreplaceable part of any healthcare ecosystem. Their work requires intelligence and advanced training, but also compassion and attentive care. Interested in the fast-paced and rewarding work of nursing? Learn more about the benefits of becoming a nurse.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in October, 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2017. Insights from Beth Anne Schwamberger remain from original article.

Advertisement: This article was created by Rasmussen College to promote its nursing programs. Please see www.rasmussen.edu/degrees for a list of the programs we offer. Rasmussen College is a regionally accredited private college and Public Benefit Corporation.


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This piece of ad content was created by Rasmussen College to support its educational programs. Rasmussen College may not prepare students for all positions featured within this content. Please visit www.rasmussen.edu/degrees for a list of programs offered. External links provided on rasmussen.edu are for reference only. Rasmussen College does not guarantee, approve, control, or specifically endorse the information or products available on websites linked to, and is not endorsed by website owners, authors and/or organizations referenced. Rasmussen College is a regionally accredited private college and Public Benefit Corporation.

Anna is a Content Marketing Writer at Collegis Education who researches and writes student-focused content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She believes the power of the written word can help educate and assist students on their way to a rewarding education.

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