What Is a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 10, 2023
2 min read

A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is an advanced practice registered nurse who has earned a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing. They use their expertise to assess, diagnose, and treat patients. But their role often extends into other areas, like health care management and research. 

A CNS’s primary role is to provide quality, cost-effective specialty care. They work in a variety of specialties, including:

  • Pediatrics
  • Women’s health
  • Geriatrics
  • Psychiatric health
  • Rehabilitation services
  • Wound care
  • Pain management
  • Oncology
  • Critical care
  • Emergency room services

Clinical nurse specialists may order tests, make some diagnoses, administer basic treatments, and, in some states, prescribe medications. Beyond this, they may provide expertise and support to a team of nurses. They often help create practice changes within an organization and plans that ensure the group is using best practices and providing evidence-based care.

The four primary roles of a clinical nurse specialist are:

  • Expert clinician
  • Educator
  • Researcher
  • Consultant

CNSs are trained to spot shortcomings or gaps in health care. They might provide consultation services, communicate with patients and their families, monitor care, design and implement interventions, and evaluate general delivery of health care.

Clinical nurse specialists also contribute to research on:

  • Reducing hospital costs
  • Reducing the length of hospital stays
  • Reducing the frequency of ER visits
  • Improving pain management practices
  • Improving patient satisfaction
  • Reducing medical complications during in-patient stays

Clinical nurse specialists have earned a Master of Science in Nursing or a higher degree. In addition, they must receive a national certification and state license. 

The process of becoming a CNS requires: 

  • A Bachelor of Science in Nursing
  • A Master of Science in Nursing or a Doctor of Nursing Practice
  • An active registered nurse license
  • A minimum of 500 supervised clinical hours in a specialty
  • A clinical nursing specialist certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center or the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses

Because clinical nurse specialists serve in different medical specialties, the type of care they provide is diverse. There are several types of care that you might receive from a clinical nurse specialist, including:

Prenatal Care. One study of women with high-risk pregnancies found that mothers who received in-home prenatal care from a clinical nurse specialist spent less time in the hospital, saving them the associated costs of that care.

Preventive Medicine and Wellness Care. Studies show that clinical nurse specialists help spot risks for chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, early on. Early diagnosis can lead to better access to preventive care and lower health care costs.

Psychiatric and Behavioral Care. Clinical nurse specialists can provide behavioral health care in private practice settings and to larger communities through outreach programs.

Care for long-term health problems. Care from a clinical nurse specialist can help people with conditions like heart failure, asthma, epilepsy, and diabetes.