What Does RN Mean? The True Definition of a Registered Nurse

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If a stranger walked up and asked whether you know what a registered nurse is, you’d probably laugh. Of course you know what a nurse is! You’ve had plenty of personal interactions with nurses, from routine doctor’s visits to having your tonsils out as a kid.

But defining what it really means to be a registered nurse is harder than it seems. Sure, RNs need a certain amount of training and are responsible for completing standard job duties. However, their meaningful work goes far deeper than this surface-level description.

So what does RN mean if it’s not just the standard definition? We’re exploring the ins and outs of this rewarding medical career to show you the real meaning of RN. Thanks to insights from registered nurses themselves, you’ll gain a whole new perspective on the true definition of RN.

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What does RN mean, anyway?

Before we can dive deep into what it means to be an RN, you need to understand what the job entails on paper. Registered nurses are medical professionals who care for patients in a variety of settings, including clinics, hospitals, schools and care facilities. They assist physicians, take vital signs, assess patients, review medical history and educate patients on new medications or diagnoses.

RNs have plenty of opportunities for other job duties depending on their specialization. For example, an ER nurse may take emergency stabilizing measures, while a home health nurse visits patients in their own homes to administer care.

All RNs need the proper training to be qualified for the job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)  shares that aspiring nurses will need either an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN), in addition to passing a licensing exam.1

Though both levels of education pave the way for the job title of registered nurse, there are some subtle differences in the workplace. “BSN nurses are usually given more responsibility, supervisory positions and higher salaries,” says Rebecca Park, RN and founder of Remedies for Me.

The surprising job duties of an RN

Most people are familiar with the basic job duties of an RN. Taking vital signs and updating patient charts are an important part of the job, but they’re not the only part! These are a few aspects of being an RN that don’t always make the job description.

Medical interpreter

The medical world is filled with jargon and complex terminology that patients and their families don’t always understand. RNs are the skilled interpreters who bridge that gap.

“We are expert interpreters,” says Catherine Burger, RN. “We interpret information from the physician to the patient and family. We interpret what we see in our assessments into the medical record and to our care partners.”

Perhaps most importantly, “We interpret what patients are saying into what they actually need,” Burger says. This isn’t a task you’ll find on most RN job postings, but it’s a vital aspect of an RN’s work.

Prioritization whiz

Not everyone has the ability to view a list of tasks and reorganize them into order of importance, but RNs do this day in and day out. “From our never-ending to-do list, we have to quickly prioritize which tasks are most important,” Park says.

RNs juggle multiple variables when deciding which task to prioritize next. “Some jobs require multiple people, some will fall during change of shift or lunch breaks,” Park says. Despite these challenges, RNs must work hard to complete their tasks in the right order so they can provide the best care possible to their patients.

“Know how to make the best of your time and what your resources are so that you can get the job done in a timely manner, no matter how busy you are,” Park says.

Efficient delegator

RNs are capable of doing a wide variety of tasks, from starting IV lines to educating patients. One of their biggest assets, however, is knowing when it’s best to hand a task off to someone else.

“Nurses are pulled in multiple directions all day long. We cannot do it all ourselves,” Park says. “We have to know how and when to delegate tasks so that our care can be most efficient.”

RNs who have a strong understanding of when to delegate tasks to other members of a care team are far from being lazy. Instead, they’re using efficiency tactics to make sure nothing falls through the cracks and every patient receives the high-quality care they deserve.

Soothing caretaker

Healthcare settings can make people uncomfortable due to their sterile environment and the scary health circumstances patients may find themselves in during their stay. Part of an RN’s job is to help make their patients as comfortable as possible so they can focus on healing.

“It can be quite stressful for patients when they are in the hospital or in any healthcare setting,” Park says. “Wait times are long, procedures are painful, NPO patients are hungry, people are in pain and uncomfortable, family members can become upset.”

Nurses are typically the care team members who have the most contact with patients, so it falls to them to make patients feel truly cared for. For Park, this is one of the best parts of the job. “There are probably multiple things that are stressing out your patients while they need help. You can be that one person that lifts their spirits.”

The most meaningful parts of the job

Nursing is often thought of as a rewarding career, but most RNs will tell you that taking patients’ blood pressures and keeping up with charting aren’t the tasks that make this career fulfilling. It’s the deeper aspects of the job that put the true meaning in the definition of RN.

“Some of the most rewarding benefits of being an RN include being able to positively affect people’s lives,” Burger says. “RNs are at the center of healthcare,” she adds, “whether it’s supporting and assisting during a birth, providing health education or saving a life in the emergency department or intensive care unit.”

Helping patients heal and regain their health is another meaningful aspect of being an RN. “It is the best to see your patients get better and be able to go home,” Park says.

Seeing patients discharged is even better for RNs who know they’ve played a part in helping a patient make positive, long-term changes to their health. “Being able to teach others how to take care of themselves and take charge of their own health” is one of the most rewarding parts of the job for Park.

RNs have plenty of opportunities to connect with others, brighten a patient’s day and make a true difference in someone’s healthcare experience. These job duties may not be part of the official RN definition, but they’re some of the most meaningful parts of the job.

What does RN mean? More than meets the eye

What does RN mean? Now you know that the true meaning of registered nurse goes far beyond a basic job description.

Are you considering joining the ranks of RNs who use their valuable skills to help patients every day? Learn how to get started with our article “How to Become a Registered Nurse: Your 4-Step Guide.

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed July, 2019] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Employment conditions in your area may vary.

About the author

Ashley Brooks

Ashley is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen University. She believes in the power of words and knowledge and enjoys using both to encourage others on their learning journeys

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