Different Types and Roles of Nurses

Nurses are found in a variety of roles and practice settings

Female nurse with male patient
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There are many different types of nurses and many ways to categorize the various nursing roles. If you are thinking of becoming a nurse, it may be helpful to consider the roles that may be available to you once you complete your education and certification process.

Categorizing Nursing Roles 

The nursing career you choose will ultimately result from a combination of education and experience you obtain early in your career:

  • Level of Certification or Education: One way to categorize nursing roles is by the level of education or degree they have or the type of certification a nurse holds. These include LVN, RN, MSN, advanced practice nurses, and more.
  • Population: Some nurses specialize in a particular segment of the population. For example, pediatric nurses specialize in children's health, and there are also nurses who focus their careers on women's health, or elder care (geriatrics).
  • Medical Specialty: Nurses may also choose to focus their work and skillset within a particular medical specialty, such as surgery, gastroenterology, OB/GYN, emergency medicine, or any other medical specialty.
  • Location, Facility, or Department: You may choose your nursing career based on the location. For example, you may choose to be a school nurse, flight nurse, hospice nurse, or hospital-based nurse. Additionally, you may choose to be a nurse who works in the emergency room (ER), intensive care (ICU), operating room (OR) or neonatology intensive care unit (NICU).

    A combination of your education, certifications, and experience will determine the career path you take within the field of nursing. It is important to have an idea of what type of nursing role may best suit you before investing the time and money to obtain a nursing degree and license.

    Types of Nurses

    These are some of the most common types of nurses, drawing from a mix of the different methods of categorizing their roles. They are not mutually exclusive. For example, RNs can be found in many different setting and roles.

    1. Registered Nurse

    Registered nurses (RN) are nurses with an associate's or bachelor’s degree in nursing. They assist physicians in hospitals and a variety of medical settings and help in treating patients with illnesses, injuries, and medical conditions.

    2. Licensed Practical Nurse

    Licensed practical nurses (LPN) perform a variety of tasks under the supervision of an RN. They administer medications, check vital signs, and give injections. They have an associate's degree and are licensed.

    3. Clinical Nurse Specialist

    A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is an advanced practice nurse (APN) and is proficient in diagnosing and treating illness within their realm of expertise. A clinical nurse specialist may focus on patients and their families, nurse management, or administration.

    4. Nurse Practitioner

    While some nurse practitioners (NP) work under the supervision of a physician, more and more are gaining autonomy, taking on many roles of a physician. NPs can diagnose diseases, prescribe medications, and initiate treatment plans. If you want more independence and responsibility, without all of the educational requirements of a physician, becoming an NP might be the perfect fit.

    5. Nurse Case Manager

    Nurse case managers coordinate long-term care for patients in hopes of keeping them healthy and out of the hospital. They can choose to specialize in treating people with diseases like cancer or working with a specific age group, such as geriatrics. Consider becoming a nurse case manager if you enjoy researching, coordination, and scheduling.

    6. Intensive Care Unit Registered Nurse

    These RNs work in the intensive care unit (ICU) of hospitals, providing complex care to those with very serious illnesses or injuries. ICU nurses may work in specialty hospitals or with patients in a certain age bracket, such as children in the pediatric ICU. Due to the difficulty of this position, most hospitals require training or continuing education before allowing an RN to work there.

    7. Travel Registered Nurse

    A travel nurse works temporary jobs nationally and internationally, sometimes for weeks at a time and sometimes for a few years. Travel nurses perform many of the same duties as standard RNs, often working for an agency that supplements staff to facilities in need. This could be a great gig for someone with no strings attached who enjoys travel and change.

    8. Home Care Registered Nurse

    A home care RN works with patients in the patient's home. Often times, these patients will be in geriatric care or young people with developmental or mobility issues. This is an ideal position for someone looking to work with patients outside of a traditional hospital setting.

    9. Operating Room Nurse

    Operating room nurses, also referred to as perioperative nurses, care for patients before, during and after surgery. They work alongside surgical teams and act as a liaison between them and the patient’s family. Perioperative nurses also equip patients and their families for postoperative care. This is a good fit for someone empathetic to the stress of surgery on individuals and families.

    10. Staff Nurse

    Staff nurses work in a variety of settings including rehab centers, critical care, psychiatric, and outpatient facilities. They provide direct patient care, administer meds, perform IV therapy, and more. Staff nurses often have the opportunity to advance and supervise other medical staff, like RNs or LPNs. Those with strong leadership skills may want to consider this option.

    11. Emergency Room Registered Nurse

    An emergency room RN will treat patients experiencing trauma or injury in a hospital ER. They will encounter a variety of conditions and have to stabilize patients dealing with traumatic events and injuries. This position would be good for someone who can handle high-stress scenarios and find it rewarding to be a presence of calm amidst chaos.

    12. Labor and Delivery Registered Nurse

    Labor and delivery RNs help welcome new lives into the world every day. They care for both mother and baby during labor, childbirth, and even after birth. A labor and delivery nurse may aid in inducing labor, administering epidurals, timing contractions, and educating the mother with breastfeeding advice when the baby is born.

    13. Medical/Surgical Registered Nurse

    These RNs provide direct care to adult patients in a variety of settings. Originally, this was considered an entry-level position for nurses to gain experience before specializing. Now, it is considered a specialization of its own because it requires mastering so many different skills.

    14. Nurse Supervisor

    Nurse supervisors, also known as nurse managers, oversee the nurses caring for patients. As a nurse manager, you will wear many hats and handle a lot of administrative duties. Nurse supervisors are often responsible for recruitment and retention of nurses as well as occasionally collaborating with doctors on patient care and assisting families in need. This is a great option for those hoping to step away from direct patient care after gaining some experience in the field.

    15. Oncology Registered Nurse

    Oncology nurses provide care for cancer patients and those at risk of the disease. They monitor the patient's physical condition and administer chemotherapy and other treatments. This is a good fit for someone interested in a challenging, yet rewarding career.

    16. Critical Care Registered Nurse

    Critical care nurses ensure their critically ill patients get optimal care for their illnesses and injuries. They have in-depth knowledge of the human body and the latest technology in the field, as well as a keen sense of their patients’ needs. Critical care nurses often work in hospitals but may also work in outpatient facilities, nursing homes or military units.

    17. Neonatal Intensive Care Registered Nurse

    Neonatal intensive care RNs care for premature and critically ill newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of a hospital. They care for infants needing immediate medical attention, connecting them to life-giving technology and comforting them when they are in distress.

    18. Dialysis Registered Nurse

    Dialysis RNs, commonly referred to as nephrology nurses, administer dialysis treatments to patients with kidney disease or abnormal kidney functions. They work out of patient homes, dialysis clinics, and even transplant units, performing dialysis treatments on their patients while helping implement treatment plans.

    19. Post-anesthesia Care Unit Registered Nurse

    Post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) work with patients as they regain consciousness from anesthesia after surgery. Also known as perianesthesia nurses, they are prepared to handle patients who react adversely, wake up in pain or confusion, or experience other problems. PACU nurses are a comforting presence to those coming out of anesthesia and offer them tips for their recovery.

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