What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

two registered nurses working in hospital

Many students consider earning their nursing degree to become registered nurses (RN). Healthcare is an excellent career field for those seeking strong employment prospects, potential for advancement and opportunities to specialize in various niches. Further, registered nurses typically find their work highly meaningful and personally fulfilling as it gives them the opportunity to help others and serve their community.

If you are thinking about becoming an RN, you may be curious about what registered nurses do. There are many answers, both because different specializations bring different activities and because every registered nurse has a wide spectrum of daily responsibilities.

Registered Nurse Responsibilities: An Overview

A registered nurse is responsible for managing and coordinating the various aspects of a patient’s care. An RN can assess patients, request medical tests, make diagnoses and administer treatments. RNs work alongside physicians and implement the physicians’ treatment plans.

For patients, and particularly for hospitalized patients, RNs are the most frequent point of contact within the healthcare system. Patients rely on nurses to help them understand their diagnoses and treatment recommendations, learn how to take care of themselves, make healthy lifestyle changes, and navigate the healthcare system. Because of this, every RN is an educator.

However, registered nurses provide much more than just medical care and practical assistance. They often work with patients during some of the most difficult and trying times of their lives. Accordingly, RNs provide a shoulder to lean on and words of comfort. Similarly, RNs are an important resource for patients’ family members who rely on nurses to keep them informed of their loved ones’ condition.

What Do Nursing Leaders Do?

If you have been researching the job responsibilities of a registered nurse, you may have discovered that some nurses are expected to be leaders in the healthcare system. Many nurses with leadership abilities work in management or supervisory roles, including:

  • Charge nurse: A charge nurse manages a specific nursing shift in a specific department. The charge nurse is responsible for ensuring that all patients in the unit receive the appropriate level of care. This includes ensuring that their needs are met and that patient and staff safety is closely attended to.
  • Nurse manager: Each nursing unit or department has one nurse manager; this position typically does not change from shift to shift. The nurse manager generally does not provide patient care but rather handles the unit’s administrative tasks.
  • Director of nursing: The director of nursing is usually in charge of overseeing the entire nursing staff across all departments of a healthcare organization. This role is administrative and does not involve direct patient care.

As you can see, some roles in the nursing profession explicitly call for leadership. However, it is also possible to take a broader view and assert that all nurses are expected to be leaders to some extent, whether they hold a specific management title or not.

Nurses are leaders when they put the needs of the patients first, set a good example for the rest of the nursing team to follow and lend a helping hand to other nurses as needed. Nurses can also be thought of as leaders when they go the extra mile to improve their ability to provide excellent patient care.

Nursing leadership is significant because when all nurses see themselves as leaders and act accordingly, patient care and safety improve and favorable outcomes increase.

What Does an RN Do? A Closer Look at the Details

Now that you have a broad understanding of the responsibilities of a registered nurse, it is time to take a closer look at the everyday details. Before you decide to pursue a degree and enter the field, it is valuable to know the specific job tasks of an RN. A day in the life of a registered nurse will vary by area of specialization, but in general, it may include any of the following:

  • Recording patients’ medical history and symptoms, observing patients and making notes of these observations
  • Assessing the condition of patients and conducting physical examinations
  • Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests and explaining the results to patients
  • Implementing physicians’ orders, including performing tests and procedures, administering medications and setting up intravenous infusions (IVs)
  • Documenting every aspect of a patient’s care, such as treatments performed and medications administered, in the hospital’s computer system
  • Operating medical equipment and ensuring that it continues to work properly
  • Developing or contributing to patient care plans

In addition, patient and caregiver education is an important responsibility of registered nurses. Nurses must ensure that patients understand how to manage their injuries, illnesses or chronic medical conditions once they are discharged. In some situations, it may be necessary to help patients connect with needed community resources, although at larger hospitals, a social worker or patient care coordinator may take on this responsibility.

In carrying out all their job responsibilities, nurses are expected to demonstrate sound nursing judgment and clinical best practices. They must also carefully follow all regulations, including those issued by professional medical associations and their own healthcare organizations, as well as federal, state and local authorities.

Areas of Specialization for Registered Nurses

When you think of RNs, you may picture them administering medications or setting up IVs in an inpatient unit. It may surprise you to learn that some nurses never set up an IV or apply sutures to a wound. This is because the nursing profession offers an incredible diversity of opportunities.

When you earn your nursing degree, you can choose to specialize in one of dozens of specialty areas. For instance, if you thrive in a fast-paced work environment with patients in critical condition, you can become an emergency room (ER) nurse. Or perhaps your family has been affected by cancer, inspiring you to specialize in oncology.

The possibilities to choose from are plentiful. Regardless of what kind of nurse you aspire to become, you are sure to make a significant, positive impact on the lives of others.

Homeless Outreach Nurse

Homeless outreach nurses may also be called community health nurses. They typically work in social service agencies and community-based healthcare organizations. As the title suggests, homeless outreach nurses specialize in providing care and services to the homeless population.

This can be an emotionally difficult line of work in which nurses hear heartbreaking stories daily. However, nurses who fulfill these roles generally do so because they feel called to serve those less fortunate and because they find the work incredibly meaningful.

The homeless population faces severe healthcare challenges that non-impoverished people do not, such as the lack of clean, running water and other basic sanitation resources. Further challenges include exposure to the elements, poor nutrition, an increased risk of traumatic injuries due to violence and an increased risk of chronic diseases and acute illness outbreaks.

A homeless outreach or community health nurse typically works in a facility but may also travel around the community to check on homeless patients, carrying supplies in a backpack or suitcase. The goal is to reduce the barriers to healthcare faced by the homeless population. Nurses in this role typically help patients coordinate their care, secure needed resources, obtain and manage medications, treat wounds and maintain nutrition.

ER Nurse

ER nurses work in emergency departments. This is an ideal role for people who enjoy fast-paced work, think well on their feet and remain calm in stressful situations. An ER nurse must also be able to multi-task, as many patients may need assistance simultaneously.

ER nurses typically see similar medical complaints over and over, which allows them to become highly proficient at treating these conditions. Abdominal pain, upper respiratory infections, sprains and chest pain are some of the most common reasons for ER visits. ER nurses also assess and manage acute drug overdoses.

The nature of an ER nurse’s caseload varies with the geographical location. Nurses who work in urban areas can expect to treat more injuries caused by violence, such as gunshot wounds and knife wounds. In contrast, nurses who work in rural areas see more injuries sustained in accidents with farm equipment or vehicles.

Trauma Nurse

Trauma nurses may work at a designated trauma center or in an emergency room, intensive care unit (ICU) or ambulatory care facility. They work with the most severely injured patients — those who are clinging to life after suffering a catastrophic injury such as a gunshot wound, amputation, brain injury or serious illness.

The primary responsibility of a trauma nurse is to stabilize patients with life-threatening medical problems. Interventions include providing emergency medications, setting up blood transfusions and performing wound care.

A trauma nurse works on a trauma team, where each member has a specific role to play. Each professional must be able to coordinate the patient’s care and juggle multiple priorities at once.

Oncology Nurse

An oncology nurse specializes in working with cancer patients and their families. Cancer is a devastating diagnosis; patients and their families are often frightened and confused about treatment options. An oncology nurse is typically their first line of communication, helping families learn about the illness and their treatment options.

Oncology nurses must often coordinate a patient’s care across multiple providers and specialists as well as keep track of all results from pathology reports, lab tests and imaging studies. They administer medications, monitor the patients’ responses and implement other aspects of the treatment plan.

Hospice Nurse

Most people who are nearing the end of life become eligible for hospice care when they are judged likely to have six months or fewer to live. However, many people end up living only a matter of weeks, if not days, after entering a hospice care program. This is unfortunate because hospice nurses and other hospice professionals can provide in-home or in-facility care that eases patients’ symptoms and helps them enjoy a better quality of life during their remaining days.

It takes a special person to be a hospice nurse. They must be compassionate and empathetic. Sometimes a hospice nurse provides as much emotional support as practical medical assistance.

Hospice nurses work with both patients and their family caregivers, helping them understand medical issues and needs. They provide palliative care, which is intended not to be curative but rather to ease the patient’s pain and other symptoms. For example, a hospice nurse might help family caregivers learn how to operate an oxygen machine, administer pain medications and maintain the patient’s hygiene.

Hospice nurses can help family members understand what to expect as the end of life draws near, educating them about signs to watch for. When a patient passes on, the family is instructed to call the on-call hospice nurse, who will assist in post-mortem care. Hospice nurses working for a hospice agency typically take turns serving as the overnight on-call nurse.

Where Do Registered Nurses Work?

RNs work in a wide variety of healthcare settings, from primary care practices to plastic surgery offices to emergency rooms. Long-term care facilities, retirement communities, schools and outpatient clinics are also common employers of RNs.

In recent years, hospitals have been under increased financial pressure to discharge patients as quickly as possible. This has brought about a higher demand for skilled professionals in outpatient care centers. In addition, it has led some RNs to travel to patients’ homes, a non-traditional setting, to provide care.

Are There Strong Employment Prospects for Students With a Nursing Degree?

Yes, the healthcare field is expected to continue to grow at a rapid pace for the foreseeable future. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for registered nurses to increase by about 7% from 2019 to 2029, faster than average, accounting for about 221,900 new jobs in the field.1

The rapid pace of growth in this field is due to several factors. Perhaps most notable is the nation’s aging population. As baby boomers grow older, their risk of serious medical conditions requiring skilled care increases.

Another factor is the retirement rate in the field. As older RNs retire or otherwise exit the workforce, new RNs are needed to replace them.

If you feel called to make a positive difference in your community, it is time to think about earning your nursing degree at Grand Canyon University. The College of Nursing and Health Care Professions offers numerous degree options to suit a diverse range of learners.

These include the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) program for actively practicing nurses who currently hold an associate degree and the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (Pre-Licensure) program for undergraduates who are new to the nursing profession. Click on the button above to Request Info on joining the dynamic GCU learning community.

COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on 2019-2029, which can be found here; Occupational Outlook Handbook, Registered Nurses.

1Retrieved from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Registered Nurses in April 2021.

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.

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