What do nurses do?

They are part of every doctor's office visit and hospital procedure: asking questions, taking temperatures and completing charts. However, despite being an integral part of a health care team, nurses can often be misunderstood. Rather than simply being assistants to doctors, nurses are highly skilled professionals who play an integral role in diagnosing illnesses, implementing treatment plans and managing chronic care.

The answer to the broad question of what nurses do depends on the type of nurse. The following are the three major categories of nurses along with their typical duties.

  1. Licensed Practical Nurses/Licensed Vocational Nurses: Known as LPNs and LVNs, these professionals provide much of the hands-on work that occurs in the doctor's office or at the hospital. They may gather information from patients, monitor vital signs and draw blood for labs.
  2. Registered Nurses: RNs are often involved in educating patients regarding condition and care. These nurses may work closely with physicians to create treatment plans. They may also administer medications, conduct diagnostic tests and help analyze results.
  3. Advanced Practice Registered Nurses: Often providing specialty care, APRNs are highly educated and may perform physical examinations, complete research and, depending on the state, may even write prescriptions and order lab work. Common APRN specialties include those of nurse midwives, nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists and clinical nurse specialists.

Within each category, nurses have the option to pursue credentials in dozens of specializations. The American Board of Nursing Specialties recognizes 19 accrediting organizations that provide credentials for nurses in fields such as oncology, pediatrics and wound care, among others.

Where do nurses work?

Again, the answer to this question depends on the type of nurse and the nurse's specialty. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012, the largest percentages of LPNs and LVNs were employed in the following sectors.

  • Skilled nursing care facilities: 29 percent
  • State, local and private hospitals: 20 percent
  • Physician offices: 12 percent
  • Home health care services: 11 percent
  • Residential care facilities: 8 percent

By contrast, BLS data reports RNs are employed primarily in hospitals, with a significantly smaller percentage working int he type of facilities that employ LPNs and LVNs.

  • State, local and private hospitals: 61 percent
  • Nursing and residential care facilities: 7 percent
  • Physician offices: 7 percent
  • Home health care services: 6 percent
  • Government: 6 percent

As for APRNs, the BLS found nearly half were employed in doctor offices in 2012, with the rest largely split between hospitals and other employers.

  • Physician offices: 47 percent
  • State, local and private hospitals: 28 percent
  • Outpatient care centers: 6 percent
  • Colleges, universities and professional schools: 4 percent
  • Offices of other health practitioners: 3 percent

Of course, a nurse's credentials and specialty also help determine what job opportunities are available.

For example, RNs specializing in oncology may be employed by hospital cancer centers to administer chemotherapy or provide palliative care. Meanwhile, APRNs, such as nurse practitioners, often find jobs at physician offices since their education and skills allow them to perform exams and write prescriptions if a doctor is unavailable.

How do you become a nurse?

In the past, the most common path to a career as a nurse has been to start by earning a diploma or certificate from a nursing school or hospital. However, as medicine and technology has advanced, earning a degree has become more common. Today, nurses often choose to earn one of the following degrees.

  • Associate degree in nursing: This program, which typically takes about two years, is adequate for individuals to become LPNs, LVNs and RNs.
  • Bachelor of Science degree in nursing: Recommended by industry groups such as the American Nurses Association and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing as the minimum education needed for a career in professional nursing, the BSN is typically a four-year program, like most bachelor's degrees.
  • Master's degree in nursing: A master's degree is required for most APRN positions.
  • Doctoral degree in nursing: As the highest level of education a nurse can receive, a doctoral degree is required for those planning to work in academia as an instructor in postsecondary nursing diploma and degree programs.

A degree is only one part of the process, however. After graduation, nurses must become licensed by their state before entering the workforce. They may also choose to sit for voluntary certification or credentialing exams.

In addition to having the right degree and license, a nurse must possess excellent communication and critical thinking skills. They need to be compassionate, perceptive individuals who can maintain a high level of confidentiality. A nurse's job can be both physically and emotionally challenging but also immensely rewarding.

Those who believe they have what it takes to become a nurse should check out nursing schools to request more information. Johnson & Johnson also maintains a website detailing more than 100 nursing specialties that may be helpful to prospective nursing students.


"Your Nursing Career: A Look at the Facts," American Association of Colleges of Nursing, May 3, 2010,

"How to Become a Nurse," American Nurses Association, 2014,

Approved Certification Programs, Accreditation Board for Specialty Nursing Certification, American Board of Nursing Specialties,

Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014,

Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives and Nurse Practitioners, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014,

Registered Nurses, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014,