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What does a registered nurse do?

Registered nurse

Registered nurses (RNs) are highly trained professionals with skills that set them apart from other members of the nursing staff.

“The designation ‘registered nurse’ is for nurses who have completed at least an associate degree in nursing or a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing, and have passed the NCLEX-RN® certification exam,” explains Jenny Abbott, MS, an instructor in the nursing program at the University of Phoenix Sacramento Valley Campus.

Here are five key duties of a registered nurse:

Patient advocacy

This is among the most important aspects of professional nursing, says Antoinette Dziedzic, MS, a nursing program instructor at the University’s Detroit Campus, noting that nursing students must be proficient in six patient-advocacy competencies before becoming RNs.

“In the health care setting, patients often feel helpless and vulnerable,” she points out. “They need someone who can act as a liaison between them and the overwhelming health care system to ensure their rights are being respected.”

Assessing patients’ health

A thorough assessment of patients’ conditions is a sophisticated process that requires deep critical-thinking skills, Abbott points out.

“This includes not only physical aspects, but also any mental health or social issues that impact the patient,” she emphasizes. “While LPNs [licensed practical nurses] and CNAs [certified nursing assistants] are vital members of the health care team, their education … does not focus on the critical-thinking skills needed to assess the whole individual.”

For instance, says Beverly Jensen, MS, an online instructor in the University nursing program, “An LPN might take the patient’s blood pressure, then check a patient’s urine catheter bag and notice it is cloudy, but only RNs can do a comprehensive assessment of all body systems and then report to the medical practitioner that they suspect a urinary tract infection.”

Developing patient-care plans

“A doctor or nurse practitioner makes the medical diagnosis, but RNs deal with the problems that result from that disease,” Jensen notes, such as a patient’s shortness of breath due to pneumonia. Only RNs, she adds, can develop a care plan, including whether to delegate nurses’ tasks to unlicensed personnel.

“For example,” she explains, “a school [RN] is the only person who can assess the needs of a paralyzed child at a school, then create a plan of care that might include placing and monitoring a urine catheter.” That school nurse can then train and supervise a classroom aide on how to insert and monitor the student’s catheter.

Coordinating care

“Most people think it’s the physician who coordinates care, but in community health settings and many hospitals, nurses do it,” says Belinda Condit, MS, an instructor in the nursing program at the Southern California Campus who also runs a home health care agency.

Care coordination includes communicating with ancillary providers like physical therapists, social workers, home health aides and others, and managing how they help patients. “The nurse puts it all together,” Condit notes.


Educating patients

National nursing standards require that only RNs conduct detailed patient education, Jensen stresses.

This can range from teaching childbirth and diabetes management courses to talking to patients about diagnoses, she explains. “Once patients have a diagnosis,” she says, “registered nurses actively educate them about what it means and what treatment looks like.”

NCLEX-RN is a registered trademark of Educational Testing Service. This publication is not endorsed or approved by ETS.