A Day in the Life of a Nurse: Daily Activities and Duties

Updated March 10, 2023

Nurses are highly trained, licensed members of medical staff who use their knowledge and skill sets to support patients through operations and various procedures, develop treatment plans and offer advice on outpatient care. Most nurses have a fairly varied schedule throughout their day, so a day in the life of a nurse can include a wide range of duties.

In this article, learn about a typical day in the life of a nurse, how a work setting can affect a nurse’s duties and review nurse specialties to help you to better determine the right nursing career path for you.

A typical day in the life of a nurse

Nurses work as part of a team of frontline health care professionals who diagnose and treat patients in various settings. Nurses work with multidisciplinary teams, including surgeons, physicians, specialists, assistants, technicians and many other health care providers. Their daily duties may include:

  • Taking patient vital signs, measurements and medical histories

  • Asking about the patient's symptoms

  • Performing physical examinations

  • Drawing blood samples

  • Requesting and conducting diagnostic tests

  • Recommending care options to physicians

  • Administering medication

  • Maintaining accurate and detailed records

  • Consulting with other health care providers

  • Educating patients on how to manage their conditions

  • Providing emotional support to patients and their families

  • Implementing and assessing care plans

  • Recommending sources of support for patients

  • Sharing relevant patient information at shift change such as admissions, discharges and changes in patient's conditions

  • Setting up treatment rooms

  • Sanitizing and assembling medical equipment

  • Checking and counting medication

  • Completing patient assessments

  • Administering wound care

  • Changing dressings

The daily routines of nurses rarely are the same twice. Working on the front line of patient care means they are always interacting with people who are in stressful situations, so nurses need to be empathetic and work well under pressure.

They also have to react appropriately to emergencies and unexpected events, so good problem-solving skills and quick thinking are both ideal qualities for nurses.

Related: Licensed Practical Nurse Resume Samples

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Image description

In a medical office, a medical professional is seen smiling as they wrap a patient's hand with a bandage.

How settings impact the daily routines of nurses

The type of health care setting a nurse works in will affect their specific duties, which patients they treat and even the hours they work. Here are the most common work environments that you might find yourself in as a nurse:

1. Hospitals

Nurses employed in hospitals can work shifts to provide 24-hour care to patients suffering from serious and acute conditions. They begin and end each shift with a handover to the next team of nurses, but emergencies and critical cases can result in long and occasionally irregular hours including night shifts and weekends.

Some hospital nurses operate specialist clinics during regular office hours and offer an outpatient service to help manage long-term conditions and treat non-emergency injuries.

Related: Learn About Being a Registered Nurse (RN)

2. Walk-in and surgical clinics

Those who work in surgeries and clinics usually have more regular hours. Their appointments are scheduled around full-time hours and some roles may require additional hours as well. Nurses in these settings assist with scheduled procedures as well as dealing with emergencies.

Related: How To Become a Scrub Nurse (Plus Duties, Skills and Salary)

3. Emergency transport

Nurses can also work in emergency transport vehicles, providing care to patients and working with emergency medical technicians. The shift patterns can vary, with 24-hour cover required for the role.

Nurses on emergency transport vehicles sometimes need to administer treatment at the scene of an accident and then travel with a patient to get them admitted to the hospital. This can involve occasionally working additional hours.

4. Residential homes and at-home care

Nurses who work in residential homes for those who are severely ill are scheduled on a shift basis to provide 24-hour care. Nurses who work in settings where the patients are more independent may only work during set office hours with some time on-call.

Related: 10 Tips for Home Health Nurses

5. Military bases

Nurses may work in the military, caring for patients at bases throughout the world. Their working hours are often similar to those of civilian nurses which can depend on their specialty, but the military does promote a good work-life balance and offer family-friendly working patterns.

Related: Army Nurse vs. Civilian Nurse: What's the Difference?

6. Corporate offices

Some nurses work as health coaches for large organizations, helping their staff make healthy choices and prioritize self-care. Nurse health coaches work standard office hours, meeting with employees who want to improve their wellness and reduce incidents of absence throughout the business.

7. Legal consultancy

Nurses can work with legal professionals to offer medical advice in cases of malpractice, worker's compensation, personal injury and cases of insurance fraud. They need specialist training on top of their nursing experience. They liaise with members of a legal team and meet with clients to ascertain the medical details relating to the case.

Ream more: How To Become a Legal Nurse Consultant (LNC)

8. Telephone triage

Also known as "telehealth nurses," telephone triage nurses provide health care advice and assist patients via phone or over a video chat. They can help patients decide whether to seek emergency care or whether over-the-counter medication or home remedies might be an option.

Telehealth nurses assist patients in remote locations or with limited access to health care. Telephone triage nursing services are available 24-hours-a-day so this is a role that involves working irregular hours including night shifts and weekends.

Related: How To Write a Telehealth Nurse Resume (With Example)

9. Schools

There are also many nurses working in schools, helping students with health care needs, teaching students how to manage their conditions and stay as healthy as possible. They often speak to groups of students to address health-related issues as well as supporting individual students with their health care needs.

They work during school hours, although they may be involved in community liaison work which might require some home visits and outreach work outside those hours.

Read more: The Pros and Cons of Being a School Nurse

10. Education/training

Some nurses work in education, delivering training to other medical teams, working in research and promoting nursing in schools and colleges. Nurse educators spend most of their day with students, but they also develop lesson plans, complete program evaluations and maintain their own professional development.

Nurses in schools work during the academic year with long vacations, but in clinical or other health care settings, they work year-round. Either setting only requires nurses to work during standard office hours.

Related: Learn About Being a Nurse Educator

11. Correctional facilities

These nurses care for the detainees, helping them to manage health issues while observing a range of safety processes and procedures. Nurses working in these settings have to be security-conscious and resilient enough to be happy working with patients who may be volatile and potentially dangerous.

Read more: How To Become a Correctional Nurse

12. The court system

The courts sometimes ask specialist nurses to assist with forensic investigations by collecting evidence, taking blood and tissue samples, examining bodily evidence and providing support for the victims of crime. This can mean on-call hours and irregular shifts, but most of the testing and analysis takes place during regular hours.

Related: 8 Nonnursing Job Options for Nurses

Other nursing roles

There are a number of specialist nurses who use various treatment methods to ensure the best outcomes for their patients. These include:

Mental health nurses

National average salary: $70,891 per year

Primary duties: Mental health nurses see patients with psychiatric illnesses including depression, schizophrenia, anxiety and mood disorders. They can work in hospitals and clinics as well as in secure facilities and specialist settings. They conduct patient observations and regular risk assessments for patients who pose a threat to themselves or other people.

Mental health nurses have to be vigilant and excellent at building relationships with patients. They deal with admissions and see patients who are struggling with acute conditions, offering them support and helping them to access the appropriate treatment from the specialists available.

Cardiovascular nurses

National average salary: $99,468 per year

Primary duties: Patients who have had heart surgery or are living with heart disease will come under the care of a cardiovascular nurse. This care can take place in hospitals, dedicated cardiac units, rehabilitation programs and specialist laboratories.

Cardiac nurses often use specialized equipment to monitor and treat patients who are suffering from a range of conditions.

Cardiac nurses work with patients of all ages and some work in patients' homes to help them as they recover from surgery. Some cardiac nurses work in rehabilitation, helping patients to adjust their lifestyles to alleviate their symptoms and help manage their health.

Oncology nurses

National average salary: $102,106 per year

Primary duties: Caring for cancer patients involves a significant amount of patient education to help them understand their treatment plans. Oncology nurses provide vital care to those who are undergoing cancer treatment.

They discuss their treatment options, explain potential side-effects of various methods and help them to make key decisions. They speak to patients and their medical teams to create treatment plans, arrange appointments with other departments where necessary and offer support and education to patients' families as well.

Neonatal nurses

National average salary: $105,874 per year

Primary duties: When babies are born with health conditions that need immediate attention, neonatal nurses treat and care for them. They work with newborns who are born prematurely, who need surgery and those who have contracted infections.

Neonatal nurses work with babies shortly after they are born, but they can continue to treat children with long-term health conditions until they are much older.

Neonatal nurses often have varied schedules which can include assisting at the delivery of babies that are premature or known to need extra care, working with mothers to help establish breastfeeding and administering medication and other treatments to critically ill infants.

Critical care nurses

National average salary: $129,588 per week

Primary duties: Working with critically ill patients, critical care nurses work in hospitals and provide medical care for individuals, usually those in intensive care units.

They work with patients suffering from acute and complex illnesses, including those who have been in accidents or suffering from serious illnesses. They can also work in emergency departments, burn units and recovery units.

A critical care nurse will work with the medical team, helping to complete assessments, diagnose and treat a range of conditions, dress wounds and provide life support. They will order diagnostic tests and help analyze the results, administer medication and monitor its effectiveness.

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