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Although there are many health care professions, none offers the range of opportunities or the ability to focus specifically on one’s interests and skills than registered nursing. Currently, registered nurses are the largest segment of the nation’s health care professionals. Numbering nearly 2.7 million, the majority work as staff nurses providing direct patient care at our nation’s hospitals. Wherever there is a need for health care, there is a need for registered nurses (RNs).

Nursing is an art and a science. RNs need expertise in both to practice effectively. With a solid educational background in anatomy and physiology, microbiology and other sciences, nurses understand the way diseases and chronic conditions progress so they can implement nursing interventions that help patients improve. A background in psychology, educational techniques, and communication, allows them to work with a variety of patients and develop specific strategies – known as “care plans” – to help patients get better faster.

While the practice of medicine focuses on disease, the practice of nursing focuses on health. RNs not only want to help patients overcome their immediate health problem, they want to assist patients in preventing a recurrence through lifestyle and other changes. To accomplish this, registered nurses take a holistic approach to patient care; they look at the total person, including physical, emotional, psychosocial and spiritual needs.


RNs who hold staff nurse positions in hospitals have the opportunity to work as generalists or specialists. For example, they can choose to practice in fast-paced, high-tech areas like cardiac intensive care units or newborn intensive care units, or they can work in general medical-surgical units, where they provide care to patients who have just undergone surgery or who are suffering from any number of complex medical conditions. They also can choose to work with any age group, from newborns to the elderly. 

No matter where nurses practice, they always perform two important roles: patient advocate and interdisciplinary team member. As a patient advocate, nurses play a key role in ensuring that patients’ needs and desires are met. As part of the health care team, nurses work with other professionals, from physicians to physical therapists, to keep patients on track toward their recovery.

Depending on their experience, advanced education, and special certification, nurses can serve in an even wider range of roles, including case manager, patient educator, nurse researcher, nurse practitioner, and clinical nurse specialist.


Staff nurses must have strong critical thinking, decision-making, communications, and interpersonal skills. Nurses must be able to accurately assess a patient’s condition and needs, develop a solid strategy to care for that patient, and competently perform a wide range of high-level skills. They also must be able to provide non-judgmental care to people of varied cultural backgrounds and be committed to practicing in a safe and ethical manner. 

Practice Settings:

Registered nurses can use their expertise in traditional settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, ambulatory care, and community and public health agencies. They also can be employed in non-traditional settings, such as children’s camps, homeless shelters, and community-based centers, like elder day care programs.

Within the hospital, staff nurses can work in:

  • Emergency Department

  • Intensive Care Units

  • Labor and Delivery

  • Medical-Surgical Units

  • Operating Room/Recovery Room

  • Outpatient Services

  • Pediatrics

Salary Range:

The average annual earnings of RNs employed full time in 2000 was $46,782, according to the National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses - March 2000.


To become a registered nurse, an individual must graduate from a state-approved school of nursing – either a four-year university program, a two-year associate degree program, or a three-year diploma program – and pass a licensing exam.

To earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing, students take coursework in nursing theory, science, humanities and behavioral science, as well as gain clinical experience in a variety of settings. Students enrolled in associate degree programs receive classroom and clinical instruction over two years; those in hospital-based diploma programs generally over three years.


American Nurses Association 
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