What Does a Nurse Do?

Male nurse reviewing information with elderly female patient.

Nurses are the cornerstone of the healthcare system, often caring for multiple patients 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, nurses also advocate for patients and offer emotional support as well as education.

Nursing professionals work in a variety of healthcare settings. Beyond staffing emergency rooms and other hospital departments, nurses can be found at standalone urgent care clinics, family physician offices, schools, pharmacies and retirement homes. Some nurses, such as those who work for hospice programs, even make house calls.

The specific job duties of a nurse depend on the employer. For example, direct care nurses who work for homeless outreach programs often provide referrals to social service resources. Those who work at inpatient departments in hospitals may handle and administer medications. Earning a nursing degree can pave the way to a rewarding career as a registered nurse. Regardless of specialization, nurses are in high demand.

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 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 asks 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 of whether a person’s health is normal and strong. Examples include tests on samples of blood, body tissue or urine. A diagnostic test can also show effects of low or high blood pressure. There are many varieties of diagnostic tests. For instance, some diagnostic testing is invasive and some is noninvasive. Invasive testing involves the puncturing of the skin, as in biopsies, blood samples and colonoscopies. Noninvasive testing does not puncture the skin and includes X-rays and MRI procedures.

Diagnostic testing is another major responsibility of nursing professionals. 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, making sure people take their medications on a approved schedule. They protect their patients from incorrect medication consumption, which can cause serious health damage. 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 benefits of these services include:

  • 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 following decreased emergency room visits and hospitalizations due to incorrect dosing or neglecting to take prescribed medications

The American Association of Nurse Practitioners recognizes that in 50 states, licensed nurse practitioners have the authority to prescribe medications without first seeking a physician’s approval.* For outpatients, nurses may write a prescription or call in a prescription to a pharmacy. In inpatient departments, such as intensive care units (ICUs), nurses may directly administer oral, inhaled or injected 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.

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 a major part of a nursing professional’s job. Nurses help patients understand their diagnoses, treatment options and discharge recommendations. When working with hospitalized patients, nurses 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.

Nursing Specializations

In nursing practice, some nurses perform additional tasks related to their areas of specialization. The various specializations offer future nurses a range of possible roles. For example, a labor and delivery nurse assists OB-GYNs in delivering newborns and providing postnatal care. OB-GYNs, also known as obstetrician-gynecologists, work in a certified role specializing in women's health, including childbirth, pregnancy and reproductive health.

A nurse anesthetist is an advanced-practice nurse who administers anesthesia during surgery and medical procedures. In some states, these professionals can work independently. However, other states require various forms of supervision or collaborative agreement. Duties associated with this role include preparing patients for anesthesia, administering it, maintaining appropriate anesthesia levels during surgery and treating patients in recovery.

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, 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 will acquire an essential foundation through our Bachelor of Science in Nursing (Pre-Licensure) degree program. After securing licensure and gaining practical 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, click on the Request Information button on this page.

*AANP: American Association of Nurse Practitioners Nurse Practitioner Prescriptive Authority in September, 2020

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.

Loading Form

Scroll back to top