What Is a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is a type of healthcare provider who is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). A CNS has a master’s degree or doctoral degree in nursing. For more than 60 years in the U.S., clinical nurse specialists have provided care in a variety of settings.

This article will explain more about what a clinical nurse specialist does, their background, and why to see one.

A clinical nurse specialist talks to a woman in a rehabilitation center

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What Does a Clinical Nurse Specialist Do?

A clinical nurse specialist can diagnose, treat, and manage people seeking health care. However, providing primary care is only one part of their role in a healthcare setting. A CNS is also an:

  • Educator
  • Clinician
  • Researcher
  • Consultant

The job responsibilities of a CNS may include:

  • Providing direct care to people seeking health care
  • Creating and managing educational programs
  • Doing research
  • Teaching and coaching
  • Managing other staff
  • Creating policies and procedures
  • Helping people transition to and from different care settings
  • Developing cost-effective ways to improve care to people seeking health care
  • Coordinating services
  • Mentoring nursing staff

Types of Clinical Nurse Specialists

A CNS can practice in many different types of specialties, such as:

  • Geriatrics (care for older adults)
  • Pediatrics (care for children)
  • Oncology (cancer diagnosis and treatment)
  • Emergency room services
  • Critical care (care for people who are seriously ill)
  • Mental health
  • Neonatal care (care for newborns)
  • Rehabilitation services

Certification is available for specializing in adult/gerontology, pediatrics, and neonatal populations.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Background

Clinical nurse specialists are required to have a graduate school degree and nursing license. To become a clinical nurse specialist, you have to complete:

  • Bachelor’s degree in nursing
  • Master’s degree or doctorate in nursing
  • Registered nurse license
  • Clinical nursing specialist certification
  • 500 supervised clinical hours in a specialty

Reasons to See a Clinical Nurse Specialist

A CNS receives training to help specific populations, such as people with complex health conditions. Seeing a clinical nurse specialist can benefit people who have chronic or complex diseases because a CNS is an expert in coordinating this type of care.

They can also help people transition to different types of care and get access to other healthcare providers, depending on their needs.

Clinical nurse specialists can introduce new evidence-based practices in healthcare settings that are more efficient and effective. For example, a CNS can help change practices in a hospital by advising how to move forward if a new guideline emerges about administering antibiotics. They can educate the nurses and other staff about the guideline while making the change easier to adopt.

The benefits of having a clinical nurse specialist can include:

  • Better coordinated care for people seeking health care
  • Lower hospital costs
  • Shorter hospital stays
  • Fewer emergency room visits
  • Better pain management
  • Fewer medical complications
  • Better patient safety
  • Faster and better implementation of new practices
  • Higher patient satisfaction

Where to Find a Clinical Nurse Specialist

A CNS can work in a variety of settings, including:

  • Hospitals
  • Schools
  • Mental health clinics
  • Community clinics
  • Private practices
  • Inpatient and outpatient clinics
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Ambulatory clinics
  • Accountable care organizations
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Assisted living

Clinical Nurse Specialist Advice for Staying Healthy

Clinical nurse specialists want you to stay healthy. Consider the following tips:

  • Avoid or quit smoking
  • Try not to touch your face
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water  
  • Keep a healthy body weight
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Exercise regularly
  • See your healthcare provider regularly

Summary

A clinical nurse specialist is a type of advanced practice registered nurse. To become a CNS, you must attend graduate school and obtain either a master’s degree or doctoral degree in nursing. Clinical nurse specialists can work in a variety of settings and specialties.

A Word From Verywell

You do not have to be concerned about seeing a clinical nurse specialist instead of a physician. A CNS is a highly trained healthcare provider with extensive education and experience. Clinical nurse specialists can provide quality patient care in a variety of settings.

One of the ways a CNS can help is by coordinating your care and helping you transition to other types of healthcare settings, such as moving from a hospital to a nursing home. Talk to your CNS if you have any concerns or questions about care transitions.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Must a CNS have a master’s degree or doctoral degree in nursing?

    Yes, a CNS is required to have either a master’s degree or a doctoral degree in nursing.

  • Is a CNS the same as a doctor?

    No, a CNS is an advanced practice registered nurse, not a physician.

  • Can a CNS prescribe medications?

    Some states allow a CNS to prescribe medications, but other states do not allow it.

  • What is the difference between a CNS and an NP?

    An NP or nurse practitioner has some similarities to a CNS, but there are several important differences. A CNS focuses more on research, administration, and education than an NP. Both positions can provide direct patient care.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institutes of Health. Clinical nurse specialists.

  2. Proehl JA. What is a clinical nurse specialist and why do you need one? Adv Emerg Nurs J. 2016;38(1):1-3. doi:10.1097/TME.0000000000000088

  3. National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists. What is a CNS?

  4. Tracy MF, Oerther S, Arslanian-Engoren C, et al. Improving the care and health of populations through optimal use of clinical nurse specialists. Nurs Outlook. 2020;68(4):523-527. doi:10.1016/j.outlook.2020.06.004