What Is a Registered Nurse?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on July 17, 2023
2 min read

A registered nurse (RN) is a licensed medical professional who provides hands-on care in different medical and community settings. This includes: 

In many ways, RNs form the backbone of the U.S. healthcare system. They perform a range of duties and work directly with patients, doctors, and other healthcare professionals.

Registered nurses help with many health-related tasks. They also see patients every day. Most RNs:

  • Manage care
  • Control safety and infection 
  • Promote and maintain health
  • Provide basic care and comfort

The daily tasks of a registered nurse depend on things like the type of facility, specialty, and patient. Some examples of registered nurse duties include:

  • Getting patients ready for exams or treatments and making assessments based on the results 
  • Recording medical histories and symptoms
  • Administering medicine and treatments
  • Helping to set up plans of care 
  • Using and monitoring medical equipment
  • Teaching patients and their families how to manage conditions and give post-treatment care
  • Working with doctors and other healthcare professionals

Some of these tasks require a doctor’s order.

In the United States, each state has its own rules for licensing registered nurses. Generally, future RNs have to attend a nursing program then take and pass a national licensing exam. 

Nursing programs are offered at both the associate (ADN) and bachelor (BSN) level. Although the licensure level is the same for both programs, the BSN requires more general and medical coursework. It can also lead to more job options and better pay. 

After graduating from a nursing program, a person must take the NCLEX-RN exam. This test focuses on four areas that relate to an  RN’s responsibilities:

  • The nursing process
  • Caring
  • Communication and documentation
  • Teaching and learning

In addition to the test, many states require other steps before becoming an RN. 

Once they’ve started their career, RNs can specialize, or become well-known in certain areas. The most common registered nurse specialties include: 

  • Emergency room (ER) nurse
  • Intensive care unit (ICU) nurse 
  • Medical-surgical nurse
  • Pediatric nurse

If registered nurses wish to specialize further, they can get a master’s or doctoral degree to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). The positions include:

When you go to any medical facility, like a doctor’s office or hospital, a registered nurse is usually the first person who talks to you in an exam room. They take your temperature, listen to your concerns, and write notes for the doctor.

Nurses can also work outside a medical building. Some RNs visit homes, work in schools, or help in prisons.

But you can’t make an appointment directly with a registered nurse, like you can with a nurse practitioner or a doctor. They don’t have all of the medical knowledge or permission needed to see you alone or diagnose you.