What Do Nurses Do? An Insider’s Guide

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Written by Aislinn Twohig Marketing Campaign Manager, IntelyCare
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Reviewed by Ann Real, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
African-American nurse with glasses and wearing navy blue scrubs.

If you’re interested in a healthcare career, there are myriad job titles across the industry that incorporate everything from technology and engineering to medicine and management. But one of the most popular career paths is that of a registered nurse (RN) employing over 4.7 million people. What do nurses do, exactly? Let’s cover the essentials.

What Is an RN?

An RN is a licensed healthcare professional who:

  • Has completed a nursing degree — either an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN)
  • Passed the NCLEX-RN exam
  • Holds a valid license to practice nursing

Exactly What Does a Nurse Do on a Daily Basis?

So what do nurses do on a broad scale? A registered nurse’s scope of practice includes providing both indirect and direct patient care in various settings such as acute care facilities, long-term care facilities, and even remotely from home, among other spaces.

Although the exact RN responsibilities largely depend on the specific specialty and nursing level, common tasks nurses perform include:

  • Preparing patients for medical tests or treatments.
  • Monitoring patients’ health status.
  • Administering medications and performing therapeutic procedures.
  • Registering vital signs, updating patient medical information, maintaining detailed and correct reports.
  • Consulting and working with supervising doctors and other healthcare professionals.
  • Educating patients and their families on how to handle conditions and symptoms.
  • Helping to create care plans for patients.
  • Making sure the appropriate medications are ordered.

Of course, these responsibilities may differ based on work setting. For example, you might wonder, What do RNs do in post-acute environments? RNs in skilled nursing facilities and assisted living communities are often direct caregivers for patients, managing daily activities, controlling safety, and providing basic care.

However, RNs working in acute care facilities such as hospitals might perform life-saving interventions in the emergency department, care for mothers and newborn babies in the maternity ward, and monitor patients recovering from surgery.

Learn more about a day in the life of a nurse as told by nurses themselves.

Where Do Nurses Work?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of nurses in America (59%) work in acute care and are employed by state, local, and private hospitals. Additionally, RNs work in ambulatory care (18%), nursing and residential care facilities (6%), for the government (5%), and in educational services (3%).

RNs can also be private duty nurses or be employed by larger organizations, including insurance companies, community clinics, or education institutions.

Here’s a small sample of the various settings RNs may work in:

Non-Bedside Jobs for Nurses

What do registered nurses do if they don’t want to perform direct caregiving duties? Well, healthcare is an expansive field. Nurses can be found working as administrators, educators, researchers, in forensics, and beyond. Learn more about the many non-bedside roles in nursing.

Steps to Become a Nurse

Nursing is a highly regulated profession that involves strict licensing and educational requirements. To excel as a registered nurse, you must have excellent communication skills, advanced training, emotional intelligence, an empathetic attitude, and critical-thinking skills. Let’s explore the basics of how to become a registered nurse.

1. Complete a nursing degree. To be able to perform the clinical duties of a nurse, you can choose either an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) from an accredited program. While an ADN is the shorter route (two years compared to four years for a BSN), employers favor candidates that have a BSN, according to the American Association of the Colleges of Nursing. You can learn more about the differences between an ADN vs BSN in our comprehensive article.

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN exam. This exam tests your clinical judgment to make sure you’re well prepared for the workplace.

3. Apply for a license. Once you pass the NCLEX-RN, you can apply for your RN license with your state’s board of nursing. This makes you legally eligible to practice as a nurse.

What Is the Average Pay for an RN?

The average registered nurse salary is $94,480 per year, but your location, specialty, education, years of experience, and facility type can impact your pay. The states with the highest average salaries for registered nurses are:

Best Cities for Nurses

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these are some of the best cities for nurses, with the highest levels of employment for RNs in particular:

Check out all the RN jobs on IntelyCare for more insight as to where nurses can find work

What Are the Benefits of Working as an RN?

Job Options and Security

What do RNs do when it’s time to research job prospects? As a registered nurse, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to find a job that suits your lifestyle. Day shift, night shift, per diem, part-time, and full-time roles — these are just a few options for you to consider. The job outlook for RNs is promising — it’s expected to grow 6% in the next decade, which is faster than the average for all other occupations.

Professional Development Opportunities

The nursing field is ever-growing, and there is always an opportunity to grow. You can get credentialed or certified in specialty areas that are of interest to you, which opens doors to new job titles. Plus, having lots of experience and training under your belt typically translates into a better salary.

Ability to Make a Difference in People’s Lives

What do nurses do that makes them so devoted to the profession? The care that registered nurses give patients can help improve the quality of — and sometimes even save — their lives. For example, some nurses monitor life-threatening changes in patients who are recovering from severe illness or trauma.

Possibility to Gain Respect and Recognition

RNs enjoy the trust and faith of the public, their patients, and the healthcare professionals they work with. Nurses are the first line of defense, and without them, a healthcare system simply can’t function.

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