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What Does a Registered Nurse Do? Understanding Their Impact

photograph of a smiling nurse in scrubs standing in front of a patient 

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 do, exactly? More than you might think!

These multi-tasking caregivers are masters at juggling many important duties to care for their patients and support other providers. Registered nurse (RN) jobs offer variety, career stability and a sense of personal fulfillment. With positives like these, it’s no wonder you’re interested in pursuing this profession.

What’s more is that registered nurse jobs are projected to increase at the much-faster-than-average rate of 12 percent through 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).1 That growth coupled with the above-average earning potential—a 2019 median annual wage of $73,300, according to the BLS—makes an RN career especially enticing.1

But what is an RN exactly and what do they do on a daily basis? Keep reading for a better understanding of the typical nursing responsibilities.

A closer look at the registered nurse job description

It’s true that nurses’ duties vary greatly depending on the healthcare setting they work in. It may come as a surprise to some, but registered nurses are not limited to working in hospitals. RN nurses can also work in in clinics, schools, assisted living facilities, homes and more. They can also specialize in areas such as cardiac care, pediatrics, family practice, geriatrics, labor and delivery, and emergency nursing.

Still, there are some general RN duties you can expect regardless of employer. Here are some tasks that can be found in a typical registered nurse job description:

  • Administering medications to patients and monitoring for reactions or side effects
  • Recording and updating patient medical information and vital signs, maintaining detailed and accurate reports
  • Consulting and coordinating with other members of the healthcare team to plan, implement and evaluate patient care plans
  • Educating patients and family members on treatments and care plans

It’s also important for RNs to stay up-to-date with new tools and technologies to help provide the best care for patients and provide the best support for other providers.

In order to carry out these important duties, nurses must have a well-rounded balance of technical and soft skills. Many precise technical skills are needed to provide high quality care for patients. But aside from that, there are several transferrable skills the best nurses share. In order to excel in registered nurse jobs, you must possess excellent communication, emotional intelligenceteamwork, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

Exploring registered nursing job environments

As mentioned before, RN nurses can provide care in a variety of healthcare settings. A registered nurse’s job description can vary quite a bit depending on the environment and specialty they’re in. To help you understand how those nurse responsibilities can differ, we broke it down into four common 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 2018, 60 percent of registered nurses worked in hospitals.1 Examples of RN nurses you might find in a hospital include cardiac care nurses, nurse managers, perioperative nurses and labor and delivery nurses.

Hospital nurses typically start their day with a report from the departing shift to get up-to-speed with any updates, from admissions and discharges to patients whose conditions may have improved or worsened. Next comes the count of medications, and then patient assessments, which generally includes vitals and a medical evaluation.

In a hospital setting, you never know what you’ll encounter. So any time during these normal rounds you could be interrupted to handle emergencies, such as a patient coding or in arrest, a new admission or another urgent event.

Hospital RNs also administer medication, change dressings and document care in patients’ records. And considering hospitals operate around the clock, 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?

For nurses working in a clinic, they typically arrive before the doctor to prepare for the day’s appointments. This may include getting exam tables ready, checking otoscope and ophthalmoscope lights, turning on computers and getting charts prepared for the day.

Clinic work revolves around appointments, so a nurse’s schedule will vary depending on how many patients are scheduled to visit. A slow day may have a nurse seeing 15 patients, while a busy day might include 30 or more. After a patient is checked in, the nurse is notified and typically begins the exam by checking height, weight and other vitals.

The nurse then gathers details of the patient’s injury or illness. It’s their duty to pass that information along to the physician. After patients meet with the physician, clinic nurses handle follow-up tests or procedures such as vaccinations, X-rays and scheduling meetings with specialists.

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’ responsibilities include 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, suffered strokes, experienced trauma or who have life-threatening illnesses.

Critical care nurses often care for patients who are intubated, ventilated or have multiple IV drips at a time. This requires knowledge of more equipment than nurses who practice in lower-stakes environments. They also generally have fewer patients under their care at a time, because each individual requires more attention and documentation.

These types of registered nurse jobs call for individuals who can keep their cool in high-stress situations and apply critical thinking skills in a fast-paced environment. Empathy and interpersonal skills are also imperative because you’ll often interact with family members who are distraught about the condition of their loved ones.

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 RN 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 1.49 million Medicare beneficiaries receiving hospice care in 2017.2 Some common duties for hospice nurses include providing care, ensuring proper medications are ordered, conducting assessments to make sure the patient is safe and comfortable, managing durable medical equipment orders and educating patients and family members on medications and side effects.

A hospice or rehabilitation setting allows nurses to form strong relationships with their patients, getting to know them and their loved ones over an extended period of time. On the other hand, a nurse in a surgery center will interact with new patients each day. As you can tell, duties will vary drastically depending on the type of ambulatory care you’re providing.

A career built on caring

So what does a registered nurse do? You’ve probably discovered that the answer isn’t quite as simple as you may have thought. RN nurses are an integral part of a support system that requires them to wear many hats—from working with new technology to educating patients and providing life-saving procedures. 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. In order to fulfill the registered nurse job description, you must have intelligence and advanced training, but also compassion and attentive care. Are you considering pursuing the fast-paced and rewarding work of nursing? Learn more about what it’ll take in our article, “How to Become a Registered Nurse: Your Step-by-Step Guide.”

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [career information accessed July 2020]. www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Facts and Figures: Hospice Care in America, National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, 2019 edition. https://www.nhpco.org/nhpco-releases-updated-edition-of-hospice-facts-and-figures-report/ [accessed July 2020]

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2020.

Callie Malvik

Callie is the Content Manager at Collegis Education, overseeing blog content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She is passionate about creating quality resources that empower others to improve their lives through education.

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