What Does a Nurse Do?

Male nurse reviewing information with elderly female patient.

If you’re looking for a meaningful career in which you could help make a positive difference in the lives of others, consider a career in nursing. You may be wondering, What does a nurse do? and What is a nurse’s usual work environment? Nurses fulfill many different roles and can work in a wide range of places, often depending on their chosen nursing specialty.

Nurses are the cornerstone of the healthcare system, typically caring for multiple patients at a time and providing critical support services. Nursing professionals are a patient’s main point of contact at the hospital. In addition to providing direct care to patients, the nurse job description also includes advocating for patients, offering emotional support and providing education. 

In This Article:

What Is a Nurse’s Typical Work Environment?

Nursing professionals work in a variety of healthcare settings. Beyond staffing emergency rooms and other hospital departments, nurses can be found at:1

  • Home (working as telehealth nurses)
  • Physician offices
  • Schools
  • Birthing centers
  • Public health agencies
  • Correctional facilities
  • Law firms (as medical consultants)

Some nurses, such as those who work for hospice programs and other home healthcare agencies, even make house calls.1

The Purpose of a Nurse Depends on the Type of Nurse

Did you know there are many different types of nurses? Although most nurses working in the healthcare field are driven to heal and support patients, the exact purpose of a nurse can often depend on the type of nurse they are. Here’s a look:

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

An LPN, also sometimes called a “licensed vocational nurse” (LVN), is able to provide basic healthcare services. They may do the following:

  • Check patients’ vital signs and monitor their health
  • Provide basic care, including changing bandages
  • Assist with the activities of daily living (ADLs), such as bathing and dressing
  • Record patient concerns and discuss them with registered nurses (RNs) or other clinicians
  • Maintain health records

Registered Nurse (RN)

An RN has more education and training than an LPN, and as such, can perform more advanced medical services. An RN can do the following:

  • Conduct physical exams, assess patients and diagnose conditions
  • Develop treatment plans or contribute to existing treatment plans
  • Collaborate with other clinicians, such as physicians and specialists
  • Set up and operate medical equipment
  • Provide patient and family caregiver education
  • Administer medications and other types of treatments

Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)

An RN can undergo additional education and training in order to become an APRN. Compared to RNs, APRNs can practice with greater autonomy. APRNs typically fall into one of the following categories:

  • Clinical nurse specialist (CNS)
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
  • Certified nurse midwife (CNM)
  • Nurse practitioner (NP)

Within those categories, an APRN can specialize further. An APRN’s scope of practice often depends on their chosen specialty. For example, a CRNA focuses on caring for patients undergoing procedures that require anesthesia and pain medications. A CNM cares for women who are pregnant or have recently given birth, as well as their newborn(s).

What Does a Nurse Do? A Typical Nurse Job Description

Although the nurse job description is heavily dependent on their specialty, level of training and work setting, there are some commonalities. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the general scope of practice for most RNs who provide direct patient care within hospitals, doctor’s offices and similar settings.

Patient Evaluation

When a patient goes to a primary care office or an emergency room, a nurse is one of the first points of contact. At this stage, the nurse’s primary responsibility is to perform a thorough evaluation of the patient.

This typically starts with asking for the patient’s medical history. The nurse reviews any available patient records and asks about recent changes in medications, supplements and diagnoses. If the patient has previously been diagnosed with a long-term medical condition, the nurse may ask if there have been any changes to that condition.

The nurse also asks about the patient’s current symptoms. Patients may neglect to disclose symptoms that they believe are insignificant or unrelated to a current complaint. For example, a patient experiencing panic attacks may fail to report digestive upset. A nurse needs to ask whether the patient is experiencing other possibly relevant symptoms.

Another crucial aspect of patient evaluation is physical examination. In family care offices, the physician is usually the one to perform routine physical examinations. However, in ER and urgent care settings, nurses often do light examinations that vary with the patient’s condition. For instance, if a patient has a rash, the nurse may need to examine only the affected part of the skin.

Diagnostic Testing

Diagnostic procedures are specialized tests to check for health problems. Examples include lab tests on samples of blood, body tissue or urine. Diagnostic tests are important in order to confirm a diagnosis.

There are many varieties of diagnostic tests, both invasive and noninvasive. Invasive testing involves the puncturing of the skin, as in the case of biopsies, blood samples and colonoscopies. Noninvasive testing does not puncture the skin and includes X-rays and MRI procedures.

Diagnostic testing is one major part of a nurse’s job description. Nurses may recommend specific diagnostic tests as appropriate to a patient’s symptoms. For instance, if a patient is suspected of having strep throat, a nurse may swab the patient’s throat and send the swab to the lab. If that test comes back negative, the nurse may then need to test the patient for mononucleosis, which can mimic the symptoms of strep throat.

Medication Management

Some nurses assist with medication management, which includes making sure people take their medications correctly. They protect their patients from incorrect medication consumption, which can cause adverse effects. An organized medication system is important for each patient’s health and well-being.

Medication management services are used primarily in senior communities and assisted-living environments. Some potential benefits of these services include:2

  • Improved patient use and administration of all medications
  • Improved percentage of patients meeting their healthcare goals
  • Reduced side effects, drug interaction and duplication
  • Decreased medical costs and emergency room visits due to incorrect dosing or neglecting to take prescribed medications

Nurses must be extremely careful to double-check all prescribed medications and their dosages to avoid medication errors. This is particularly important when two medications used for different medical purposes have similar names.

A nurse’s prescribing authority depends on where they practice and their level of training. RNs are only legally allowed to dispense medications in 16 states. In contrast, some APRNs (NPs and CNMs) can dispense medications in all 50 states.3

Patient Education

Patient education is the process of informing and motivating patients’ behaviors. This includes working toward effective changes in patients’ knowledge and attitudes to improve their long-term health status. The information incorporated into patient education includes patient conditions, available treatments and options offered through healthcare systems.

Patient education is often a major part of a nursing professional’s job. Nurses can help patients understand their diagnoses, treatment options and discharge recommendations. When working with hospitalized patients, nurses can help patients and their family caregivers understand how to complete their recovery at home. Nurses may also need to demonstrate how to care for wounds and explain how to take medications properly at home.

Types of Registered Nurses: Conditions, Departments and Populations

Earlier, we discussed how the answer to the question, What does a nurse do? can differ, depending on the type of nurse (e.g., LPN, RN or APRN). However, there are many more types of nurses beyond those three levels. A nurse can also specialize by medical condition (e.g., cancer care), population (e.g., pediatrics) and department (e.g., emergency room).

Here’s a look at some of the common types of nurses by specialty:

Hospice Nurse

A hospice nurse is an example of a professional who specializes in a particular population. Hospice nurses may work within hospitals or other care settings, or they may visit patients at home. Hospice agencies send nurses to patients’ homes to provide end-of-life care, which can include:

  • Monitoring the patient’s condition
  • Administering palliative medications
  • Providing emotional support to the patient and their family
  • Educating family caregivers
  • Setting up medical equipment, such as oxygen equipment and catheters

Oncology Nurse

Cancer is one of the most devastating diagnoses a patient can receive, particularly if it isn’t diagnosed early. An oncology nurse, whose specialty is defined by the type of medical condition, is a professional who helps patients navigate the oft-confusing world of cancer care.

Oncology nurses not only set up IV drips for chemotherapy drugs and answer questions about side effects, but they can also:

  • Provide emotional support and compassionate guidance
  • Serve as advocates for their patients
  • Connect patients and family members to community resources, such as transportation options and financial help

Emergency Room Nurse

An ER nurse is a clinician who specializes in a particular department in the hospital. The ER can be a good place to work if you like to stay on your toes, prefer to work with a wide range of patient cases, and are able to stay calm in a crisis.

During any given shift, an ER nurse may care for patients with anything from an upper respiratory infection to a gunshot wound. ER nurses must quickly triage patients to determine which patients need to be seen immediately and which can wait.

Critical Care Transport Nurse

A critical care transport nurse provides various services to transfer patients safely from one location to another. This kind of nurse works in an ambulance or medical evacuation aircraft, stabilizing patients on their way to the hospital or to a new facility. The work includes monitoring and assessing patients to keep them stable.

If you envision yourself in a profession that allows you to serve your community and promote the wellness of your neighbors, consider starting your nursing education at Grand Canyon University. In the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions, you can apply to the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (Pre-Licensure) degree program.

After securing licensure and gaining clinical experience in the field, you may wish to earn your graduate nursing degree at GCU. We offer multiple specialization options, including the Master of Science in Nursing with an Emphasis in Health Care Quality and Patient Safety. To learn more, complete the form on this page.

NurseJournal. (2023, Oct. 12). The 10 best places to work as a registered nurse. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2023.

2 Peterson, A. (2021, March 21). Medication compliance and management for seniors. Walker Methodist. Retrieved Jan. 5, 2024. 

Guttmacher Institute. (2023, Sep. 1). Nurses’ authority to prescribe or dispense. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2023. 

Approved by the associate dean of the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions on Jan. 29, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.