Registered nurses, or RNs, are important workers in the healthcare system. They have more training and a higher level of certification than nursing assistants and licensed practical nurses, but less than nurse practitioners and specialists. They work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, physicians’ offices, community clinics, urgent care clinics, nursing homes, and in the homes of patients.

The work of RNs is often the backbone of a medical facility. They provide care that comforts and puts patients at ease, but they also perform some medical procedures, administer medications and IVs, and work closely with physicians and specialists. They are an important communication link between patients and doctors and help to ensure that all instructions are clear and followed. Quality care from RNs is crucial for overall good quality medical care for all kinds of patients.

What is a Registered Nurse?

A registered nurse is a nurse that has completed a college-level nursing program, usually either a four-year bachelor degree program or a two-year associate degree program. Some employers, like hospitals, may require RNs have a bachelor’s degree. RNs have also been licensed by passing a national examination called the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX-RN. The completion of an approved nursing program followed by a passing score on the exam are both required across the country, but individual states may have additional requirements for RNs, including background checks.

A registered nurse may also choose to get certification in specialty areas of nursing, in order to work in certain settings or to provide more specialized care. Areas of specialty include pediatrics, ambulatory care, urgent care, infusion therapy, emergency care, and geriatrics, but there are many others. Some medical facilities may require special certification for employment. RNs can also advance with experience and ongoing education to become assistant managers of nursing, clinical managers, nursing managers, or head or lead nurses.

RNs are educated, trained, and licensed to perform nursing duties in any medical setting. Unlike nurse practitioners, though, they cannot act as primary care givers or prescribe medications. They can advise patients, perform or assist with a number of procedures, handle and administer medications, and take measures to ensure patients are comfortable and understand their doctors’ instructions and advice.

What Registered Nurses Do

The duties of a registered nurse are dependent on where they work, the patients that they work with, and the responsibilities assigned by an employer. In smaller facilities with fewer nurses and other medical workers, an RN will likely have more duties and a greater range of responsibilities, while at large facilities, like hospitals, they may have a more limited range of tasks. In general, the duties of a registered nurse include:

  • Examine, evaluate, and assess the condition of patients.
  • Observe patients and record notes and symptoms.
  • Listen to patients and record needs and complaints.
  • Communicate and collaborate with physicians about patient condition and needs.
  • Operate and use medical equipment.
  • Organize and administer medications and certain other treatments.
  • Contribute to and write up patient plans.
  • Take samples for diagnostic tests.
  • Perform diagnostic tests.
  • Educate patients and their families about conditions and treatments.
  • Explain to patients what they need to do at home or to continue care and treatment.

Registered Nurses May Provide Specialized Care

In addition to the general duties that RNs provide for patients in many medical settings, they also provide specialized care in other settings. Nurses may work in specific hospital departments, specialty clinics, specialist physician offices, and other areas in which duties include other types of care. These are just a few examples of specialized RN care:

  • Oncology nurses. These nurses work with cancer patients, and some may specialize further to work with children or teens with cancer.
  • Critical care nurses. These RNs are specially trained to work in urgent care, providing constant monitoring of critical patients.
  • Nephrology nurses. In nephrology, RNs provide kidney care, such as operating dialysis machines.
  • Addiction nurses. These nurses work with patients in rehab for drug or alcohol addiction.
  • Psychiatric nurses. Psychiatric RNs work in psychiatric hospitals, departments, or residential facilities and provide specialized care for patients with serious mental illnesses.
  • Rehabilitation nurses. These RNs work with patients that have permanent or temporary physical disabilities.

Where Do Registered Nurses Work?

An RN may work in nearly any type of medical setting. The majority of RNs, 61 percent, work in hospitals, including private, local, and state hospitals. Eighteen percent of RNs work in ambulatory facilities, which can include any medical facility in which the patients are cared for on an outpatient basis: physician offices, clinics, specialty medical centers, and in patients’ homes. Nurses may also work in schools, adult and juvenile corrections facilities, in the military, and at other sites. RNs may also work on a traveling basis, working temporarily in one location before moving on to another, based on need.

Who Needs the Care of an RN?

An RN is one of the most diverse types of medical caregivers, and so any type of patient can benefit from their care. They are trained to provide a wide variety of care and many can even provide similar care to what physicians offer, especially those with years of experience. Patients who most need the care of an RN, though, are those who have long-term health needs or who have injuries or illnesses that require them to be hospitalized or to stay in a residential care facility for a period of time.

The Importance of RN Care

The importance of the work that RNs do cannot be overstated. They are crucial to providing overall good care for patient in a variety of settings. They perform many duties that patients need for the best care, such as making sure medications are correct and monitoring vital signs on equipment. But they also provide comfort, ensuring that patients are as pain-free as possible and comfortable as they recover or undergo treatment. They provide important communication between patients and doctors.

The care provided by RNs has been shown to provide a number of benefits in a range of healthcare settings:

  • Reducing the need for patients to seek emergency room care
  • Lowering the costs of medical care
  • Increasing survival rates in patients
  • Reducing infections in medical settings, especially hospitals
  • Improving patients’ confidence in being able to care for themselves
  • Improving patient satisfaction and overall outcomes
  • Generally improving quality of care for all patients

Getting Quality Registered Nursing Care

These benefits that come from the care of registered nurses are only possible when that care is of the highest quality. Poor or bad nursing care can cause patient harm. In many cases poor care is not the fault of the RN, as hospitals are often understaffed, either because of a lack of available RNs or as cost-saving measures. This means that those RNs on duty are stretched thin and may not be able to provide the best possible care.

Patients and their families must be proactive in seeking and getting good quality RN care. When hiring RNs for home care, for instance, this means checking licensing and references and monitoring ongoing care. In settings like hospitals, patients have less control, but they can still ask questions about how many nurses are available, how many patients they are responsible for, and can speak up when care is not of good quality. Good RN care is so important and is worth advocating for by all patients and their loved ones.