Different Types of Nurses and their Role in Healthcare

If you’ve ever considered a career in nursing, you probably already know that the field is extremely diverse and the needs are many! There are numerous types of nursing careers to choose from, so how do you choose the right path, and ensure that you’re taking the correct steps to bring your dream to fruition? While many prospective nurses naturally consider factors like salary and educational requirements, there’s a bigger consideration that must be weighed: the nurse’s larger role in the healthcare landscape. By understanding how each type of nurse brings value to the world of healthcare, you can make your decision from a more informed and confident place.

That’s where we come in. We’ve provided you with this concise, easy-to-follow cheat sheet about the most prominent types of nurses, what kind of degrees their jobs require, how they fit into the bigger picture when it comes to the healthcare industry, and more. If you’ve ever found yourself looking at the letters after a nurse’s name and scratching your head in confusion, this is the guide for you! Nurses are in many ways healthcare’s lifeblood, and the more you know about their duties, the better prepared you’ll be for the needs of both your employees and your patients.

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RNs

RN is short for “registered nurse” and is most likely the type of nurse that pops into your head when you think of that word. RNs abound in America’s hospitals and doctors’ offices; they are often the first healthcare professional a patient comes into contact with regarding medication, treatment plans, and other provisions vital to the individual’s health or recovery. There are millions of RNs working in the United States today, which should underscore just how vital they are to the smooth running of healthcare establishments all over the country.

There are many different specializations of a registered nurse, from psychiatric care to infection control, but in terms of training and qualifications, all RNs have a few things in common. Every registered nurse must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to earn this qualification, which tests nursing students on a wide range of questions regarding their expertise and critical thinking skills; the exam is only available to students who have completed an accredited nursing degree, such as a nursing diploma (two to three years), associate degree (two to three years), or bachelor’s degree (four years). Each RN must also be familiar with what the American Nurses Association defines as the nursing process, which is:

  1. Assessment
  2. Diagnosis
  3. Outcomes/Planning
  4. Implementation
  5. Evaluation

RNs form a vital component of the overall healthcare industry, and they are essential for making sure the gears keep turning. Almost everyone in an advanced nursing position begins their careers as registered nurses, and their skills and experience influence every day-to-day element of hospitals, nursing homes, and more. No practice is complete without a dedicated staff of RNs.

LPNs/LVNs

An LPN is a Licensed Practical Nurse (or Licensed Vocational Nurse in Texas and California). LPNs perform under the supervision of RNs; they can perform similar medical duties, but since an LPN works at the discretion of registered nurses and doctors, they are given fewer responsibilities, and their scope of practice is much smaller. This is reflected in the rigor needed to acquire the degree in each job: RNs are typically in school for two to three years, while an LPN degree can usually be acquired in around a year.

However, just because LPNs don’t always factor in leadership roles doesn’t mean that their job isn’t extremely important. Licensed practical nurses often deal directly with the patient’s immediate care, which means they’re most frequently the ones taking vitals, treating wounds, and administering medication. LPNs are charged with carrying out important tasks designated by the RNs and doctors, and as such, they gain a lot of hands-on experience that makes them well prepared for promotion into those two roles.

LPNs perform many of the operational duties that allow a healthcare practice, home care environment, or hospital to work at maximum efficiency. A “practical” nurse is often the kind that will form the connective tissue between immediate treatment and a larger overall healthcare and treatment plan. They make an important difference in patients’ lives every day and shouldn’t be taken for granted.

CNSs

CNS stands for Clinical Nurse Specialist. A CNS is a highly trained and rigorously educated subdivision of nurse, and frequently they are deeply specialized in a particular area of medicine or treatment. CNSs are implemented as experts in a given area of practice, and the range of areas that they can specialize in is very wide: there are Clinical Nurse Specialists for locations like emergency rooms and intensive care units, for specific diseases like cancer and diabetes, for particular types of ailments like wounds or mental trauma, and many more. In other words, if there’s an area of medicine that involves a specific set of skills, there’s likely a CNS that goes along with it!

Clinical Nurse Specialist is a very important and highly coveted role in the healthcare apparatus, and as such, it can be a difficult position to nab. Every CNS must first complete a bachelor’s in nursing before completing a master’s program or a doctoral degree program, and this can take years of intense practice and study. From there, further degrees are required depending on the specialization of choice (for example, a degree in pediatrics may be required if the CNS in question wishes to work at a children’s hospital). The ins and outs vary depending on the area of expertise and a given nurse’s state board requirements, but it’s a long, demanding road no matter where or what you pick.

The payoff is well worth it, however. Clinical Nurse Specialists are revered in healthcare for their educational abilities and their capacity for mentoring others, and it’s not at all uncommon for a CNS to earn a six-figure salary. CNSs can provide and suggest treatments that might be outside the wheelhouse of a more generalized nurse, and they have great influence in shaping the productivity and care philosophy of the practices they work for. It wouldn’t be out of bounds to say that many CNSs are as well regarded and well compensated as the doctors they work with!

Clinical Nurse Specialists play a huge role in the leadership arena of the healthcare industry; their input and expertise are vital not only for treating patients with specialized ailments but also for maintaining and improving the systems of healthcare practices around the country. The CNS is instrumental in making sure their peers have the information they need to work at the highest possible level of proficiency. While not as visible or well-known as doctors and RNs, CNSs are an indispensable component of providing patients with the most effective treatment and care possible.

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CNAs

 A CNA is a Certified Nursing Assistant. This role is exactly what it sounds like: the CNA helps RNs and LPNs with the routines and daily tasks of a given hospital or clinic. CNAs frequently respond to immediate patient needs, such as bringing them food and taking care of their hygiene and reporting any changes in their condition to a doctor or nurse. Think of the CNA as the go-between for the patient and the professional that will provide their broader healthcare plans and you’ll get a better idea of the role they fulfill.

This may sound like a similar position to that of the LPN, but there are some key differences. The main one is that CNAs are not permitted to do some of the more intensive duties that typically accompany the nursing field; they cannot administer medication or alter or suggest treatment plans. A CNA degree can be earned in a community college or a vocational school, and the job tends to be on the lower end of earning potential when it comes to the healthcare industry (as of 2017, the median hourly wage for a nursing assistant was just over $13 an hour).

Once again, however, it needs to be emphasized that just because the training requirements to become a CNA are lower than for those of some other jobs in the medical profession, this does not mean the job is easy or trivial. Because Certified Nurse Assistants are so involved with a patient’s day-to-day living, they can make a gigantic impact on a patient’s life and be the difference between an affirmative and positive healing process or a terrible one. CNAs also take on much of the direct manual labor of nursing that many take for granted, like making beds and transferring patients from room to room. Hospitals simply couldn’t run effectively without a large number of diligent nursing assistants.

Nursing assistants don’t receive much of the glory that comes to the profession of medicine, but they are some of the unsung heroes of the healthcare industry. They form a vital bridge between the patients and their caretakers. While their tasks are less technically intensive than those of other nursing jobs, they increase any medical facility’s ability to operate at a maximum of efficiency and hospitality.

NPs

NP is short for Nurse Practitioner. This is one of the fastest-growing and most highly in-demand jobs in healthcare today. NPs are generally specialized into a particular area of medicine, much like Clinical Nurse Specialists are. The biggest difference is that within that specialization, an NP’s scope of practice is extremely broad. They have the authority to diagnose patients and suggest treatment plans, guide the operations of a healthcare practice, and even conduct independent medical research. In much of the United States, NPs even have “full practice authority”, which essentially means they’re regarded as having the same authority and expertise as doctors!

As you might expect, becoming a Nurse Practitioner is no easy feat. Like CNSs, to become an NP you need a master’s degree and extensive further education in the field of medicine you wish to work in. Additionally, NPs are required to have a bachelor’s degree in Nursing Science and to have previously worked as an RN with a license in good standing. It can take years to go through the motions of becoming a Nurse Practitioner, and because the field has so much competition, the standards for who can be regarded as a qualified NP are very high.

But that level of competition comes with its own set of benefits, too. NPs typically command higher wages than many of their peers, and because the job is in such high demand, there are plenty of openings for the position all over the country. Plus, the specialized nature of the role typically means that it comes with a significantly higher level of job security than, for example, that of a nursing assistant. It’s a rare thing to find a position that’s as bountiful, well-salaried, and steady as this one, even in healthcare!

There’s never been a better time to look into the Nurse Practitioner position. It’s a high-paying, highly skilled, and highly in-demand career that only looks to be increasing in relevance and necessity as time goes on. Many doctors look to NPs for guidance, and their intuition and research skills can make the difference between a good treatment plan and a great one. This is one of the most useful positions to be in the know about across the entire healthcare industry.

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Nurse Case Managers

A Nurse Case Manager is responsible for the long term treatment, care, and rehabilitation of the patient. Case managers most frequently work with patients who have either chronic or long-term illnesses, such as diabetes or cancer. They are in charge of guiding and monitoring a patient’s treatment through every step of the process. Their role in a patient’s recovery is as “hands-on” as it is administrative, frequently requiring a blend of medical know-how and the ability to keep schedules and manage copious patients and workloads. Case managers play an intimate role in patient recovery, and their job requires a great deal of insight, organization, and compassion.

To become a case manager, one must hold an active RN license, but the requirements from there vary. Case managers aren’t exclusive to any particular field of nursing; any advanced arena of nursing, such as nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists, will also include case managers that are trained in that particular field of nursing. As such, a master’s in Nursing Science will frequently be desired for anyone willing to enter the role, although occasionally a bachelor’s will suffice.

Case managers are expected to have a wide field of knowledge, as the position can entail the personal care of many different types of patients with many different kinds of maladies, and as such the requirements needed to reach the position usually, require not just education but a substantial amount of prior on-the-job experience as well. Even more than other types of nurses, a case manager is expected to have foresight and patience as well as medical know-how.

Because of this, case managers play a gravitational role in the healthcare industry. Frequently they are the professionals tasked with organizing the flow of payments and appointments between the patient, physician, and the insurance company. They keep track of patients and alter their treatments as necessary, and they can be just as important as any doctor in determining a patient’s odds of long term recovery. This means that the field is competitive and the pay is good—many case managers earn in the range of $69,000 to $80,000 annually. Much is asked of the case manager, but much is given as well—not just in compensation, but in the bonds they form with their patients and their peers, too.

Case managers play an intimate, detailed role in helping patients get from their desired Point A to Point B. The referral process in the healthcare industry does not always ensure the patient is taken care of in a timely manner.  They are important figures not just in the world of healthcare but in the lives of their patients, and their involvement is indispensable at every step of the healing process.

Choosing a Nursing Career

 As you can see, there are more types of nurses than you can shake a stethoscope at, but even after this exhaustive primer, the truth is that we’ve barely scratched the surface. Within each category of nursing, there are dozens of subdivisions and specializations trained to handle every malady known to man. Medicine is a sprawling and complex field, and the world of nursing is there to match it and make it a little easier for everyone. If you’re considering a nursing career, consider the role that each type plays in the rewarding healthcare field, and decide which career path is most in line with your own dreams and goals.

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Chris Scalise

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