Working in the healthcare industry can be a challenging, but extremely rewarding career. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in nursing, becoming a registered nurse (RN) is one of the most common ways of breaking into the field.

But what exactly is a registered nurse, and what do they do? Here’s everything you need to know about the profession, from what their core roles and responsibilities are, where they typically work, and how to become one.

The Role of a Registered Nurse

Registered nurses (RNs) often wear many hats on a daily basis to treat their patients. A registered nurse’s primary role is to ensure every patient receives the direct and proper care they need in a number of ways.

RNs assess and identify patients’ needs, then implement and monitor the patient’s medical plan and treatment. They also ensure patient care is conducted according to the policies and standards of their employer—whether that’s a hospital or another type of healthcare facility.

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Most importantly, registered nurses coordinate the care for every patient. From drawing blood and educating patients on their health to working closely with doctors on their medical team, nurses manage all the moving parts in their workspaces.

“I like to think of us as the captain of the ship, because we're actually coordinating the care,” says Donna Glynn, PhD, RN, ANP, and associate dean of pre-licensure nursing at Regis College. “Medicine is so specialized now that the team could include a whole variety of different specialties, but we're the ones who are coordinating all aspects of it from the specialists that see the patient, the primary care provider, physical therapy, and case management to achieve the best patient care.”

Registered Nurse Job Duties and Responsibilities

An RN’s typical day varies depending on a number of factors, including the location they work in—both geographically and in terms of the type of facility—, the size of the staff and nursing team, and the population they serve. RNs working in a physician’s office, for example, may take on some administrative work, while those working in a hospital are less likely to do this kind of work.

No matter how broad a registered nurse’s duties may be, they’re typically responsible for the following tasks:

  • Assessing, observing, and speaking to patients
  • Recording details and symptoms of patient medical history and current health
  • Preparing patients for exams and treatment
  • Administering medications and treatments, and then monitoring patients for side effects and reactions
  • Creating, implementing, and evaluating patient care plans with the medical team
  • Performing wound care, such as cleaning and bandaging them
  • Assisting in medical procedures as needed
  • Operating and monitoring medical equipment
  • Drawing blood, urine samples, and other body fluids for lab work
  • Educating patients and family members on treatment and care plans, as well as answering their questions
  • Supervising licensed practical and vocational nurses, nursing assistants, and nursing students
Top Responsibilities of a Registered Nurse List

So what does a day in the life of an RN look like? According to Glynn, the shift typically starts with getting a report from the previous shift. From there, the RN completes their own assessment of the patient by obtaining their vital signs like blood pressure and heart rate. This is all in an effort to understand where a patient’s health is and where it needs to be.

“Then you administer the medications, and you're always checking their lab results,” says Glynn. “As a nurse, you’re constantly assessing and reassessing, and then meeting with the team, the patient and their family, and with the case management team.”

Essentially, RNs are critical to healthcare operations because they work with many other nurses and medical professionals on their team to ensure quality patient care, inform patients of their health needs, administer treatment and medications, and keep hospitals and medical facilities performing at their highest standards.

Skills Needed to Be a Registered Nurse

Being a great registered nurse means having several practical skills.

First one, all healthcare professionals should have a passion for providing the best care to patients. This means RNs need to be compassionate as well as effective communicators since they are the liaison between patients and their doctor—often explaining health conditions and treatment plans.

In addition, nursing is filled with a wide range of unexpected challenges—meaning registered nurses must have adequate problem-solving skills to create effective solutions for optimal patient care. As a result, registered nurses also need leadership skills to feel confident in these high-stakes situations.

Common Work Settings for Registered Nurses

While it’s common for registered nurses to work primarily in hospitals, physicians’ offices, and surgical clinics, they also work in assisted living facilities, patient homes, schools, as well as for large corporations, the military, and government institutions.

As an RN, you’ll not only have the option to work with a variety of patient populations, but within many specializations as well.

Some of these specialities include:

  • Pediatrics
  • Oncology
  • Geriatric care
  • Ambulatory care
  • Rehabilitation
  • Radiology
  • Family medicine
  • And more

What’s the typical salary for RNs?

Daily roles and responsibilities aren’t the only things that can vary among registered nurses. A registered nurse’s salary can also vary depending on location and work setting.

The median annual salary for registered nurses in the US was $73,349 ($35.26/hr) in 2023. However, this pay can vary significantly depending on the specific region or state you choose to work in. In Massachusetts, for example, registered nurses earn a median of more than $93,160 per year.

Regardless of where you work though, you can expect a quality salary and benefits package as a registered nurse.

What qualifications does a registered nurse need?

If you're interested in learning how to become a nurse, here are three steps you need to help you get there:

three steps to becoming a registered nurse: complete an accredited nursing program, pass the NCLEX exam, and apply for licensure.
  • Earn an accredited degree: In some states, an associate’s degree is the minimum educational requirement for becoming an RN, but in other states a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) will be required. As more states and employers move toward requiring a BSN, this has become the de facto standard in many circles.
  • Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX)
  • Obtain state licensure: Steps can vary significantly from state to state, so be sure to check in the state you wish to practice. For example, you can read more about becoming a nurse in Massachusetts here.

Aside from an expertise in medicine and documenting, analyzing, and reporting on data, it’s also important for registered nurses to have strong soft skills—such as critical thinking, communication, adaptability, and empathy— since they have to manage a variety of situations and work with different types of people.

Types of In Demand Registered Nurses

Today, the healthcare sector is expected to have a high demand for several nursing specialties that reflect its evolving needs.

Some of the most sought-after nursing jobs include:

  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA): This role prepares and administers anesthesia to patients in collaboration with surgeons and anesthesiologists.
  • Neonatal Intensive Care Nurse: Nurses specializing in neonatal care often care for newborns—particularly those who are ill or premature in intensive care units.
  • Pain Management Nurse: These nurses manage patients' pain post-surgery or those suffering from chronic pain conditions.
  • General Nurse Practitioner: General nurse practitioners provide advanced care—including diagnosing and treating illnesses as well as prescribing medication.
  • Certified Nurse Midwife: Nurses in this field are in high demand because they specialize in women's reproductive health and childbirth.

These types of nurses offer diverse opportunities for registered nurses hoping to advance their career and embrace the evolving and expanding needs of the healthcare industry.

A Critical Member of the Nursing Team

Becoming a registered nurse requires time, higher education, clinical training, and additional certifications. In exchange, nurses earn higher salaries and benefits, and, most importantly, save lives.

RNs have the opportunity to level up their careers by earning their master’s degree in nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and gaining additional experience to become nurse practitioners or take on other roles.

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