Uh-oh. You woke up with a burning sore throat, and your mom says you need to go have it checked. But before the doctor even makes you say aaahhh, there's probably someone else you'll see first: the nurse.
Nurses are important people. Not only are they often the first health care professional that a sick or injured person sees, but they do their job in all kinds of settings — from local hospitals to faraway military bases.
Some even work in the sky or at sea, helping to transport sick people on planes or caring for passengers on ships. In fact, anywhere in the world you can find someone who needs health care, you can probably find a nurse.
Where are you most likely to meet a nurse?
At your doctor's office. Nurses in medical offices typically assist the doctor by asking you about your symptoms, taking your temperature and blood pressure, checking your weight, giving shots, and collecting blood or urine samples for lab tests.
Doctor's office nurses are also usually educators as well, making sure patients understand their illness and know how to take any medicine that's prescribed.
You'll also find nurses:
Whatever type of work they do, the best nurses have one thing in common: they love interacting with people. That's because nurses do more than provide hands-on health care. They also give patients and their families compassionate support at a time when they need it most. Nurses are educated to care for the whole person, not just treat whatever health issue somebody has.
It's easy to think all nurses are pretty much the same, but that couldn't be further from the truth. There are actually dozens of different types of nurses, each with its own level of training. Basically, the more formal education a nurse has, the more responsibilities he or she can take on.
People who want to become nurses have to decide which path is right for them. Some people know early on that they want to be a nurse. They might volunteer in hospitals when they are in high school and then go on to college to get a nursing degree. Others become nurses later in life, switching careers because they want to do something more rewarding and make a difference in people's lives.
Whichever way people come to nursing, here are some of the paths they can take:
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN): A licensed practical nurse provides basic care to patients under the supervision of a registered nurse. Things an LPN might do include helping a patient bathe and dress, administering certain types of medications, changing wound dressings, and taking vital signs. An LPN has at least 1 year of training in providing this kind of care.
Registered Nurse (RN): Registered nurses give medication, perform basic procedures, and work closely with doctors to monitor a patient's condition. All RNs have a degree from a 2- to 4-year nursing program. They study subjects like chemistry, biology, anatomy, and psychology, and they also get lots of hands-on practice called "clinical training." RNs are the most common type of nurse and most RNs have a bachelor's degree.
Registered nurses need a nursing license. To get a license, a nurse must successfully complete a nursing program and pass a test called a licensing examination. To keep that license, a registered nurse must continue to take classes every few years to make sure his or her skills are up to date.
RNs also need additional training if they want to "specialize" — that is, focus their care on one type of patient, such as newborn babies or the elderly. Registered nurses also can become certified in a certain area of expertise, such as emergency or intensive care.
Advanced Practice Nurses (APN): Advanced practice nurses are registered nurses who have gone on to get further training, including a master's degree. There are many types of APNs, including a certified nurse midwife (who is trained to deliver babies), certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA, who specializes in giving and monitoring anesthesia), and a nurse practitioner (NP).
A nurse practitioner is a type of advanced practice nurse with training in a specific area, such as pediatrics. An NP often is the one who takes a medical history, does an initial physical exam, writes prescriptions, and treats illnesses and injuries. In fact, you may see an NP instead of a doctor at some of your office visits.
If you've ever seen an old movie with nurses in it, you've probably noticed that nurses used to look a lot different from how they look now. They wore white dresses, white shoes, and a crisp white hat. And they were all women.
A lot has certainly changed in the last 40 years. Today you're more likely to find nurses wearing comfortable scrubs with clogs or sneakers, and you're also more likely to find that many are men. In fact, the number of men in the profession has been steadily rising.
Still, with people living longer and needing more health care, there are simply not enough nurses to go around. Some experts estimate that by the year 2020, there will be a shortage of 1 million nurses — and that translates to a lot of sick people who may not get the care they need.
Will you help fill that gap? Maybe so. Nursing takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but most nurses say there's no other career they'd rather have.
Reviewed by: Julia Brown Lancaster, MSN, RN
Date reviewed: July 2011
Originally reviewed by: Deidre T. Shinn, MSN, MBA
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