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 in order to treat their patients. A registered nurse’s primary role is to ensure that every patient receives the direct and proper care they need, and they go about doing this 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 that patient care is conducted according to the policies and standards of their employer, whether that is a hospital or another 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 teams, 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 registered nurses 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, 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

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. Then the RN will complete their own assessment of the patient by obtaining their vital signs like blood pressure and heart rate. This is all in an effort to orient yourself to where your 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 and administer treatment, and keep hospitals and medical facilities performing to their highest standards.

Skills Needed to Be a Registered Nurse

Being a great registered nurse means having several practical skills and a caring attitude. First, all healthcare professionals should have a foundational passion for providing the best care to patients. This means RNs need to be excellent communicators since they have to explain various health conditions to patients.

In addition, the nursing profession is filled with a wide range of unexpected challenges, meaning registered nurses must have adequate problem-solving skills to create effective solutions in order to provide exceptional care.

By taking control of these high-stakes situations, registered nurses must be comfortable in leadership, continuously advocating for the best patient outcomes.

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, for large corporations, and even the military or other 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. You can work in pediatrics, oncology, geriatric care, ambulatory care, rehabilitation, radiology, operations, and 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, depending on location and work setting. Your salary will, too. The median annual salary for registered nurses was $73,349 ($35.26/hr) in the US in 2021. But this pay can vary significantly depending on the specific region or state that 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, you can expect to enjoy quality salary and benefits as a registered nurse.

What qualifications does a registered nurse need?

Becoming a registered nurse will require you to complete three main steps:

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 having expertise in medicine and being able to document, analyze, and report on data, it’s also important to have soft skills, such as critical thinking, communication skills, adaptability, empathy, and strong work initiative, because as a nurse, you’ll handle a variety of situations and work with many types of people on the job.

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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