What Is a Medical-Surgical Nurse? Exploring This Broad Nursing Focus Area

illustration of nurses tending to several patients

                                                                                                                                            You know that nursing is more than playing dress-up with scrubs and working at a hospital. You want to make a difference, and you know that you’ve got what it takes. But there are so many types of nursing—pediatric, neonatal, ER, ICU, OR—the list goes on. The variety can be a bit overwhelming if you’re just getting familiar with potential nursing career paths.

Thankfully, you’re not alone in that feeling. Thousands of nurses have gone before you and have grappled with this same uncertainty as they started their careers. Everyone has to start somewhere, and as it turns out, one of the most common starting points is as a part of a medical-surgical nursing team.

In this article, we’ll dive into the details of this expansive nursing role so you’ll have a clearer path of this common nursing career starting point.

Get Your Nursing School Questions Answered at a Nursing Information Session

Reserve Your Spot


What do medical-surgical nurses do?

Imagine this. You wake up early, don your trusty blue scrubs and grab your lunch bag complete with a diet cola and turkey sandwich. You’re ready for another extended shift at the hospital where you’ll tend to patients whose ailments can vary substantially. You are a medical-surgical nurse, and you’ve got this.

You are part of a flexible team of nurses assigned to patients who are making a hospital visit for any number of reasons—they can be on the mend from a recent surgery, dealing with shortness of breath, or suffering from severe back pain. Pick a reason you might visit a hospital, and an experienced medical-surgical nurse has seen it.

After trading your coffee mug for a stethoscope, you’re ready for the report from last night’s shift. They update you on the condition of the handful of patients in your ward, and after that, you see them for yourself. Make a game plan. Who needs what pain meds when? Who’s coming in and who’s leaving? Whose charts need to be completed?

From here on out, it’s a game of changing cards. As one of the go-to people in this unit, you need to keep track of which patients are improving and which patients need more attention. From minute to minute, your plan could change. But you’re not alone. You have a team of trained nurses and doctors all coordinating to give your patients the best care.

It can be overwhelming at times and no two days are the same, but as you develop your skills and learn more about your field, you will begin to see how meaningful this job can be. Medical-surgical nurses are the comforter, the caretaker and the conductor of a patient’s well-being. They look to you for reassurance when they need it most.

Why start with medical-surgical nursing?

As a new nurse, you will have studied and received a lot of hands-on training during clinical rotations—but this experience is only scratching the surface of what you may want to focus your nursing career on. Starting out on a medical-surgical nursing unit is an excellent opportunity to get real experience working with patients dealing with a broad cross section of ailments. From heart to lung, from correctional to preventative, there are almost as many types of patients as there are types of surgeries.

Along with learning how to treat a variety of conditions, you will gain skills that are important for all medical positions. As any medical-surgical nurse will tell you, time management and prioritization are crucial. If you have six patients to take care of, and six patient charts to track, and two of your patients are showing signs of discomfort, but one needs to be discharged, what do you do? This role requires quick thinking and the ability to reshuffle priorities as patient needs can change suddenly.

This is the unit where many nurses get their “sea legs” and master how to think like an effective nurse in potentially stressful situations. Even if you know you have your heart set on eventually working in a more specialized nursing unit, the experience gained in a medical-surgical unit will go a long way in showing that you can be an effective member of nursing team. 

How do I become a medical-surgical nurse?

Like most registered nursing careers, you have two main options—get an Associate’s degree or a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing. After that, you’ll need to take and pass the NCLEX-RN exam, become a registered nurse, and apply for medical-surgical positions at hospitals and clinics.

When it comes to choosing a degree program, you’re likely wondering what the difference between an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree is if they both can lead to the same exam, certification and job? The answer is that while you are likely to start your nursing career in similar positions and pay scales, a BSN can help long-term—some employers may prefer candidates to have a BSN for specialized nursing roles or for leadership positions in a unit, while others might require their ADN nurses to earn a BSN within a certain number of years. Despite this, earning an ADN is still an appealing option for many as it can provide a faster route to getting your foot in the door. Remember, there’s always the option of returning to school to complete an RN-to-BSN program if you do hit a career roadblock later on.

Not sure what’s the better option for you? We used job posting analysis software to examine over 63,000 medical-surgical nursing listings nationwide and found that just under 40 percent of these postings were seeking candidates with a Bachelor’s degree.1 This education preference may vary depending on where you live—so be sure to ask around and do some local research before making a decision.

Remember, while working in medical-surgery is a fantastic first job for nurses, there is no rule saying you have to move on from it. Many nurses fall in love with the position and choose to stick with it throughout their entire career. If you do choose to go on to a specialized role like emergency, neonatal or labor and delivery nursing, a history in a medical-surgical unit will prepare you to handle a variety of patients in a quickly changing environment.

Learn about your options

Now that you know more about the work of a medical-surgical nurse and the valuable variety of experience it can provide, you might still be curious about some of the other nursing specialties you could end up pursuing. Familiarize yourself with the most common options in our article, “Top 25 Types of Nurses Employers Are Looking to Hire.”

1Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 63,063 medical-surgical registered nurse job postings, Aug. 1, 2018 – July 31, 2019)

About the author

Hannah Meinke

Hannah Meinke is a writer at Collegis Education. She enjoys helping people discover their purpose and passion by crafting education and career-related content on behalf of Rasmussen University.

hannah meinke headshot

Related Content

Related Content

This piece of ad content was created by Rasmussen University to support its educational programs. Rasmussen University 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 University 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 University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, an institutional accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

logo-accreditation-acen logo-accreditation-ccne chart-credential-laddering-associates-bachelors-masters 0 Credits 90 Credits 180 Credits 48 Credits Start Here HIGH SCHOOL GRADS Start Here TRANSFER STUDENTS Start Here SECOND DEGREE PURSUERS End Here ASSOCIATE'S DEGREE Start Here MASTER'S DEGREE PURSUERS End Here BACHELOR'S DEGREE End Here MASTER'S DEGREE chart-credential-laddering-associates-bachelors 0 Credits Start Here HIGH SCHOOL GRADS Start Here TRANSFER STUDENTS 90 Credits Start Here SECOND DEGREE PURSUERS End Here ASSOCIATE'S DEGREE 180 Credits End Here BACHELOR'S DEGREE chart-credential-laddering-msn chart-credential-laddering-nursing-programs chart-credential-laddering-nursing DNP MSN RN to BSN LPN to RN Bridge Accelerated BSN Professional Nursing ADN Practical Nursing Diploma Pre-Licensure Post-Licensure icon-colored-outline-bank icon-colored-outline-certificate icon-colored-outline-circle-dollar-sign icon-colored-outline-folder-search icon-colored-outline-hand-heart icon-colored-outline-head-blocks icon-colored-outline-head-cog icon-colored-outline-head-heart icon-colored-outline-health-plus-leaves icon-colored-outline-hospital icon-colored-outline-lifelong-learning icon-colored-outline-light-bulb-analytics icon-colored-outline-location-pin icon-colored-outline-magnifying-glass icon-colored-outline-monitor-healthcare icon-colored-outline-monitor-paper-search icon-colored-outline-nurse-rays icon-colored-outline-padlock-shield icon-colored-outline-person-presenter-screen icon-colored-outline-scales ras-logo-flame ras-logo-horizontal ras-logo-stacked icon-colored-advance icon-colored-arrows-cross-curve icon-colored-briefcase-star icon-colored-build icon-colored-bulb-analytics icon-colored-certificate icon-colored-continual-development icon-colored-duo-chatbox icon-colored-folder-mortarboard icon-colored-forward-ribbon icon-colored-gears-clock icon-colored-globe-pen icon-colored-growth icon-colored-hand-bubble icon-colored-hand-stars icon-colored-hands-gear icon-colored-head-blocks icon-colored-head-cog icon-colored-health-plus-leaves icon-colored-hospital-building icon-colored-laptop-cbe-skyscraper icon-colored-laptop-checkmark icon-colored-laptop-webpage icon-colored-location-map icon-colored-location-pin icon-colored-monitor-paper-scan icon-colored-mortarboard-dollar icon-colored-national icon-colored-people-chat-bubbles icon-colored-person-cheer-star icon-colored-person-laptop-checkboxes icon-colored-person-screen-instructor icon-colored-person-whiteboard icon-colored-phone-chatbox icon-colored-police-light icon-colored-prep icon-colored-presenter icon-colored-regional icon-colored-save-time icon-colored-shirt-hat icon-colored-skyscraper icon-colored-state icon-colored-student-centered icon-colored-support icon-colored-world-experience icon-triangle-arrow-up-plant icon-triangle-calendar-pencil icon-triangle-clock-rotating-arrows icon-triangle-display-gears icon-triangle-hand-right-speech-bubble icon-triangle-laptop-coding-brackets icon-triangle-mortarboard icon-triangle-paper-ribbon icon-triangle-person-cheer-star icon-triangle-person-juggle icon-triangle-triple-people-chat-bubble icon-modality-campus icon-modality-field icon-modality-online icon-modality-residential icon-arrow icon-bank icon-camera icon-filter icon-general-chart icon-general-connect icon-general-degree icon-general-discuss icon-general-email icon-general-find icon-general-hat icon-general-heart icon-general-laptop-building icon-general-laptop icon-general-leader icon-general-map icon-general-money icon-general-paperwork icon-general-people icon-general-phone icon-general-speak-out icon-head-heart icon-info-circle icon-mail-forward icon-mglass icon-play-solid icon-quote-mark-left icon-quote-mark-right icon-scales icon-share-square-o icon-simple-chat icon-simple-desktop icon-simple-find icon-simple-hamburger icon-simple-phone icon-spinner icon-tag icon-testimonial-quotes icon-util-checkbox-white icon-util-checkbox icon-util-checked-white icon-util-checked icon-util-chevron-down icon-util-chevron-left icon-util-chevron-right icon-util-chevron-up icon-util-circle-arrow-down icon-util-circle-dot icon-util-language-switch icon-util-loading icon-util-open-window-link icon-util-pdf-link icon-util-refresh icon-util-x rebrand-arrows icon-social-facebook-colored icon-social-facebook-square-colored icon-social-facebook-square icon-social-facebook icon-social-google-plus-square icon-social-google-plus icon-social-instagram-colored icon-social-instagram icon-social-linkedin-square-colored icon-social-linkedin-square icon-social-linkedin icon-social-pinterest-p-colored icon-social-pinterest-p icon-social-twitter-colored icon-social-twitter-square icon-social-twitter icon-social-youtube-play-colored icon-social-youtube-play graduate-cap-star-coin hand-coin hand-heart nurse-stethoscope-rays card-send-smile person-yoga-pose suitcase-star