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Essential skills for a nursing career

Nursing skills

Being a nurse these days isn’t just about taking temperatures and starting IVs. “When I first started my nursing career 30 years ago, the medical community scoffed at the idea of nurses being professionals with advanced skills,” notes Lesley Hunt, who teaches courses in the LPN/LVN to BSN program at the University of Phoenix Main Campus. “But now nurses are held to higher standards of accountability.”

Today’s health care environment requires nurses to master skills that go beyond the bedside, according to Hunt, a graduate of the University’s master’s in nursing program. “Health care has become very complicated, and nurses are now the chief care coordinators.” Here are five skills nurses need to successfully compete in the marketplace:


“I tell all my students that nurses must be excellent communicators, both orally and in writing,” Hunt says. “At the bedside, there can be difficult patients and confusing orders from doctors. That’s where good communication skills are critical.”

Developing strong writing is also key, according to Hunt, who notes that even entry-level staff nurses are responsible for writing shift logs and charting patient records. “And as nurses move into management, they write policies, proposals and reports. Without good written communication skills, the nurse loses credibility,” she says.

Cultural competency

With an increasingly diverse patient population, nurses must learn about other cultures — and sometimes even other languages.

“Cultural competency teaches you what your own inherent [cultural] biases are” and can help prevent misunderstandings, explains Gemma O’Donnell, another instructor in the LPN/LVN to BSN program. “We must understand ourselves before we can understand our patients.”

Because of changes in demographics nationwide, most nursing programs and hospitals now offer courses in learning about people of diverse backgrounds. In addition, employers are seeking nurses with foreign language skills to better serve growing immigrant populations.

“As a nursing case manager, it’s amazing how many more Spanish-speaking and Asian [immigrant] patients I’m now responsible for,” says O’Donnell, who frequently relies on interpreters in her job at a national health insurance company.


Nurses must handle sensitive patient information without breaching privacy laws — a task that is becoming increasingly difficult in the digital age. The Affordable Care Act requires all U.S. medical providers to convert fully to electronic health records by 2014, and like all information in the digital age, those records can be targeted by hackers.

“Nurses are bound by federal HIPPA laws, and we can be fined thousands of dollars if we breach patients’ confidentiality,” O’Donnell explains. “We must understand the law, and also be sensitive to our patients’ need for privacy at all times.”

Nursing informatics

The blending of nursing practice with information technology (IT) has given rise to a new specialty known as informatics. “At minimum, all nurses must be trained how to use the latest information technologies — computers, tablets, smartphones,” Hunt says. Nurse informaticists work with software developers to create better processes for integrating health care with IT.

Meanwhile, the rise of telemedicine — the use of email, videoconferencing and mobile devices to diagnose and communicate with patients — creates additional opportunities for nurses who choose the informatics specialty. “All nurses should take at least one class on telemedicine,” O’Donnell stresses. “This is how we’ll be interacting with almost all of our patients in the future.”



“Nurses have to be caring no matter what,” O’Donnell stresses, even if the patients they treat are drug addicts or convicted criminals. She also notes that empathy goes two ways: “You have to show it to your fellow nurses as well as your patients.”

O’Donnell cites an example from her role as a nursing manager, where she advised her overstressed staff to treat patients like they would their own family members. “One of my nurses told me, ‘You know, Gemma … this [advice] really hit home. I am a better nurse having that perspective.’”